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.
Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, July 1998.
BE ADVISED: This story includes the depiction of sex between two consenting adult women. If this offends you, please find something else to read!
Special thanks to Mary for taking time to read, advise, and encourage. And thanks to Jeanne for answering my many questions about giving birth and nursing.
Constructive criticism and unadulterated praise are always welcome! Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All day the dull, cramplike sensations had come and gone, moving through her body like a long, tired funeral procession. But later, in the darkness of the night, when the pains began in earnest, she started to hope that her time was near at last. Even so, she did not move, but lay there on her side in the darkness, waiting for what was to come. She lay unmoving, staring at the thin cloth walls of the tent, wondering how they managed to support such a heavy weight of moonlight and shadows.
She had not really been asleep when the pains began, had not slept well for weeks now, with the child kicking and shifting inside her each time her own body was still. So she had lain there, night after night, on the low, fur-covered bed where she had once lain with Borias, and sometimes she still reached out without thinking, reached out for his warm, sinewy body, and found only cold, empty air.
She lay there now, alone in the darkness. She lay in the place where she and Borias had lusted and panted for each other, moaning and sweating, bruising and cursing each other in the power struggle they called sex. On this bed where she now lay, the child had been conceived, the child they had neither dreamed of nor wanted, the child who had no place in the lives of two warlords driven only by the desire for wealth and power.
For a time, there was no more pain, and then it came again, pushing its way sharply through her body before fading away. There was no need to go yet, no need to move, even, no need to do anything but wait. Outside the tent, men's voices and footsteps sifted through the night. It was the changing of the guard, which meant it must be nearly midnight.
She had kept her secret well, had guarded it as zealously as the centaurs guarded the secret location of the Ixion stone. Thank the gods it was winter and she could wear a heavy cloak to hide her swollen belly. Even on the warmest days she wore it, keeping it draped carefully about her so that it hid the grotesquely misshapen figure that was now hers. The cloak had been her salvation, the cloak and some old tunics that had belonged to Borias. She had worn his trousers, too, with darts cut in them and a drawstring loosely run through and tied above the swelling -- the swelling that grew within her day by day, threatening to reveal her weakness and give her army reason to question her command. She could not lose control, could not show herself to be weak in any way. She was the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, delighting in the terror she saw in her victims' eyes.
She had not even told Borias that she was pregnant, had been afraid to let him gain the upper hand. Yet he had gained it anyway, betraying her to the enemy, going to the centaur camp and revealing all her plans to Kaleipus. That filthy bastard Borias, that scum, that low-down dirty dog! He had once wanted the power of the Ixion stone as much as she did, but he had turned on her, and in some fit of cowardly nobility had betrayed her quest.
Another pain moved through her and she eased herself over onto her back in a futile effort to relieve her discomfort. When the pain had passed, she pushed herself up to a sitting position, hating the awkwardness with which she was forced to move, hating the pain she knew had barely begun, hating the child within her and the man who had fathered that child, the man who had betrayed her. And this hadn't been the first time. He had betrayed her once before, in the land of Chin, had betrayed her to Ming Tzu, who had had her hunted like an animal by his dogs. Borias had never loved her, had never cared about her except insofar as she was useful to his purposes. Nor had she loved him. Their relationship had been nothing but a battlefield, a place where each one tried to outsmart and use the other in a bid to gain the ultimate power. Well, she had won, in the end. Borias had betrayed her, but he was dead now. He had paid for his betrayal with his worthless excuse for a life.
But if she had told him, what then? If he had known that she carried his child, would he have been as quick to betray her? She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her chest, rocking slowly back and forth. She had not known, herself, had not admitted that she could be with child until she was into her fourth month. The morning sickness, the missed moontime bleedings, the thickening of her waistline -- all of these she had ignored or explained away. And when at last she could disregard the signs no longer, she had tried to rid herself of the child, having heard old women whisper that such things could be done. She had sought out a healer, a man known for his skill with herbs. She had gone to his hut, and had stood looking at the multitude of dried and packaged herbs, knowing there must be some among them which would achieve her purpose. She had gone there and begged him for the herbs that would cure her, had begged and pleaded to be relieved of the burden she carried. But he had refused to hear her pleas, had turned away, saying he was a healer, not a murderer. He had scorned her and called her a wanton killer, a destroyer of life. He had withheld from her what she needed so desperately, and no amount of money she offered him or even rough threats could make him change his mind.
Another pain came, and she waited with bowed head for it to pass, remembering now the old woman she had visited, a creature with clawlike hands and a strange, raspy voice. The old woman had cast a spell, using many smoky incantations, a spell which she claimed would bring the birth to pass long before the proper time. But the spell had not worked. The thickening and swelling of her body had continued against her will, and although she rode hard and fought hard and took long swims in cold lakes and encouraged Borias to vent all the force of his passion on her body, nothing produced the result she so desired. Day after horrible day, the child continued to grow within her, and she knew that Borias would soon notice, would soon perceive her weakness. She knew she could not keep her secret from him much longer.
But on the very night she had meant to tell him -- that very night he had come to her talking like a madman, talking of a change of heart, professing his admiration for the centaurs, for their honesty and courage. He had tried to persuade her to give up her quest for the Ixion stone, but she had refused. She wanted -- no, desperately needed -- the power it would give her, needed that power now, especially, when her condition rendered her so vulnerable. She needed all the wicked power trapped within the stone, needed it to conquer all her enemies, to conquer the whole world, and to destroy Caesar, above all. If Borias didn't want to share in her conquests, that was fine, but she herself would not be dissuaded.
She should have seen it coming, his betrayal, should have recognized his unexplained absences and increasing moodiness as signs. But so preoccupied was she by then with her pregnancy that her ears refused to listen and her eyes refused to see. The morning after their confrontation, he was gone -- gone to betray her to the enemy, to those despicable, not-even-human centaurs he now claimed to admire.
With a heavy sigh, she wrapped one of the furs around herself and staggered clumsily to her feet. She had gone to bed with all her clothes on, even her boots, which she had taken to leaving on anyway because it was so difficult these days to reach them to lace them up. And besides that, they served to lend support to her swollen ankles. Slowly, she began to pace back and forth within the confines of the tent, to pace as she had so many nights over the worn rugs that covered the dry, matted grass. The tent had stood on this spot for almost three weeks now, the length of time her army had held the centaurs under siege. Borias' betrayal had given the initial advantage to the enemy, and they had used it to drive her forces back. But she had quickly seized control, regrouping the men, inspiring them, and leading them into battle again and again, until at last the centaurs were trapped, cornered like rats behind their fortifications.
Yes, she had them where she wanted them now, surrounded and at her mercy. She felt certain she could crush them with one last, all-out offensive, yet she waited. She waited for the centaurs to run out of food and arrows, to weaken and perhaps surrender -- although they had proved such fierce fighters that she doubted they would. She told her impatient troops that they were waiting for the centaurs to weaken so that they could be more safely attacked, but in reality she was waiting only for her child to be born. No longer able to haul her heavy body into the saddle, she could not ride, as she should, at the head of the attacking force. And so, day after day, the siege dragged on, the siege which her men hated, but which she welcomed as good fortune. Soon it would be over, though. Once the child was out of her body -- and she hoped that within a few hours now it would be -- she needed only a day or so to recover and the final battle could begin.
She smiled, thinking of the victory that would be hers, then grimaced as another, sharper contraction took hold of her. Stopping near one of the center tent poles, she gripped it with both hands and leaned her head against it. Her labor had surely begun. She felt certain the time was near, but how long should she wait? The midwife had told her she would have plenty of time, that first babies almost always took many hours to be born. Still, she would feel better if she could get out of the camp, away from anyone who might hear if she cried out or made some other sound. Yes, she would go very soon.
But when the pain had subsided, she stood, still clutching the tent pole, feeling, if not frightened, then at least profoundly alone. "Borias," she murmured, and in spite of the rage she still felt toward him, at that moment she wished for nothing more than to feel the comfort of his arms around her.
She had sent three of her best men out to capture him, had sent Estragon, Dagnine, and Cretus. She had sent them with the strictest orders that Borias was to be brought to her unharmed. She had given them to understand that she wanted to deal with him herself, that she planned to avenge his betrayal in her own chosen way. And she had her plan all ready, her trap neatly set. She would punish him with his own remorse, would take his hand and lay it on her swollen belly, would let him feel the child kick and move, the child he had planted within her. When he learned the full extent of his betrayal, he would be sorry, she knew. He would come back to her then, and they would make up just as they always did, with a night of wild passion, rutting like animals on a bed covered with animal skins. She remembered now that she had smiled, thinking about how it would be, anticipating the excitement and the pleasure of it.
But late that night Estragon had come to tell her that Borias was dead, that they had found his sword-pierced body in the woods near the centaur camp. And she had been totally unprepared for the chilling pain that clutched her gut, or for the way her hands began to tremble uncontrollably. She could not even speak at first, but luckily there was no need to do so. Estragon had talked blithely on, as if he were delivering the best of news. He told her they had left the body for the centaurs to discover, having first performed a few mutilations well befitting the traitor dog Borias had been. Let the centaurs honor him if they had a mind to, he had said, laughing. Let them honor him as the hero they apparently believed him to be.
She had responded then, at last, had said something like it was about time someone killed the bastard, or something lame like that. Then she had thanked Estragon and dismissed him with the order that she was not to be disturbed again that night. After which she had spent the long, torturous hours in the tent alone, alternately pacing and lying, unsleeping, on the bed. How had it happened? Who had killed him? Had her own men done it? They would deny it, she knew, but she also knew their anger at Borias' betrayal was almost as great as her own. Or maybe someone in the centaur camp had done it, had wanted to make it look as if she were the murderer. In the end, it did not matter. Both the centaurs and her own men would believe she had ordered him killed.
There had been so many times when she had thought she wanted him dead, but now that he was, she felt no relief. He had managed to betray her once again, had betrayed her one last time, leaving her alone to deal with the odious burden of her pregnancy. It had been the ultimate betrayal, and she pictured him now, watching her from the Other Side, watching and laughing at her in that irritating way he had, and she hated him for it. She hated him for betraying her, for impregnating her and then leaving her. She hated him for being dead. And through all the hours of that long, dark night, she had nursed her hatred, had clung to it like a life raft in an angry sea, had used it as a shield to keep herself from knowing, to keep herself from feeling what she did not want to feel, to keep herself from missing him as she did, with every fiber of her being.
* * *
She released her hold on the tent pole and began to pace again. Her memories had grown as heavy as the unborn child within her. She did not want those memories, did not need or want the added burden of them. She felt another pain beginning, but she set her mind against it, ignoring it as she paced steadfastly back and forth within the tent. Were the pains coming closer together? She could not tell for sure. Certainly they were coming regularly now, as they had not earlier in the day. Was it time to go, or should she wait a while longer? She came to an abrupt halt as she felt a sudden rush of warm liquid pouring down her legs, soaking her trousers and running into her boots. Embarrassed to think that she had lost control of her bodily functions, she ran one hand over the wet fabric and sniffed her fingers. It was not urine, she realized with relief. Her water had broken. It was time to go.
Shrugging off the fur she had wrapped around her shoulders, she dropped it on the bed and picked up her heavy woolen cloak. Putting this on, she moved to the opening of the tent, pushed aside the flap, and stepped outside. The camp was drenched in moonlight, a thick, oppressive moonlight which revealed no human activity, but only the long rows of tents standing still as stones. She crossed to a small tent nearby, hesitated briefly at the doorway, and then ducked inside. Four figures wrapped in blankets lay sleeping on the ground. Approaching one of these, she bent down as far as she was able and nudged it with her toe. "Deros," she whispered.
"Huh?" the young man mumbled, then turned over and peered up at her with sleepy eyes. "Xena?"
"I need you to deliver a message for me," she said, still in a whisper.
"Yes. Come outside."
She backed out of the tent and moved a few paces away to wait for him in the shadow of a tree. In a few moments he emerged, his feet in unlaced boots and a blanket clutched around his shoulders.
"I'm sorry to wake you," she said softly when he came to where she stood, "but I need you to take an urgent message to the village. Do you know where the blacksmith's shop is?"
"Yes," he said, nodding. "I was there two days ago when I took Darphus' horse to be shod."
"Good," she said. "There's a house next to the shop, on the east side, with a small fig tree in the yard. Go there and ask for Calandra. Tell her Xena sent you to say that the moon has risen."
"The moon has risen," he repeated, giving her a quizzical look. "Is that the whole message?"
"Yes. She'll know what it means."
"Should I wait for an answer?"
"No. Just come back here when you've delivered it. And then at first light I want you to go to Darphus and tell him--" She stopped, gritting her teeth as another pain ran through her, hoping Deros could not see her face in the shadows.
"And tell him what?" the messenger asked.
"I'm sorry," said Xena as soon as she was able to speak again. "I thought I heard something."
He glanced around apprehensively.
"No, don't worry," she said quickly. "It was just my imagination."
"So what should I tell Darphus?"
"Tell him that I had some business to take care of and that it may be a day or two before I get back. Until then, he's in charge. He knows what to do to maintain the siege."
"All right," said Deros. "Is there anything else?"
"No, that's all," she said, "But Deros," she added, moving closer and putting her hand on his shoulder, "don't tell anyone about your trip into the village. That message is to be delivered in the strictest confidence. Can I count on you?"
"Of course, Commander," he said with a grin. "Have I ever let you down?"
"No, you haven't," she said, squeezing his shoulder and then releasing it. "You've been a trustworthy aide and a brave fighter. In fact, I've been wondering whether you wouldn't make a good scout for me -- if you think you would like that kind of work."
"Yes, I think I'd like it very much!"
"Good. Next week I'll arrange for you to start training. Now go and deliver my message."
"Consider it done, Xena," he said, and with a salute-like wave, he turned and disappeared into his tent.
She walked slowly back to her own tent and slipped inside. Picking up her sword, she hooked its scabbard to a strap which she then looped over her right shoulder so that the sword hung down her back. In the past, she had worn the weapon on a belt at her waist -- in the past, when life was simpler and there had been no need to hide her body under a heavy cloak. But the past was gone now and the present required her to make certain adjustments.
Moving about the tent in the cloth-filtered moonlight, she opened a wicker chest and knelt in front of it, pulled out a clean tunic and then dug down until she found an old, loose-fitting chiton. She had not worn the garment for many months, but she hoped to wear it again soon, maybe tomorrow, as soon as this ordeal was over, as soon as the child was out of her, and her body had resumed a more normal shape. And then, within a couple of days, she would surely be able to wear her leathers again, her leathers and her armor -- the battle dress she had so missed wearing during these last few months.
The cold, damp trousers clinging to her legs made her wish she had a dry pair to put on, but Borias had left only one pair behind, and that was the pair she now wore. Well, it didn't matter. When she got to the cave, she could take the horrible things off. She wouldn't need them anyway for what she was about to go through.
A new contraction began and she sighed deeply, closing her eyes until it had passed. Afterwards, she rummaged in the chest again and pulled out a section of an old, frayed blanket. Then, closing the chest, she lurched awkwardly to her feet. She spread the blanket out on top of the chest and laid the chiton and tunic on it. Next, she added a hairbrush, two small loaves of bread, a handful of olives, several figs, and two apples. Wrapping everything in the blanket, she tied the bundle up and tucked it under one arm. Then she crossed to the tent's opening, lifted the waterskin from the hook where it hung on a tent pole, and took a long drink. With a l ast, quick glance around, she hung the skin over her shoulder and stepped out into the night again.
When she reached the edge of the camp, she stopped in the shadows and looked to see who was on guard duty. After a couple of minutes, she saw him, moving slowly along the camp's perimeter. It was Dagnine. At the other end of the camp, around the centaur fortifications, the guard was much heavier, but a few watchmen had also been posted here, where there was little potential for action. She could pretty much predict that Dagnine was not happy to have drawn so boring an assignment.
Standing still in the shadows, she waited, knowing she must let the next pain pass before she approached him. Dagnine was a skilled warrior and a fearless fighter, but he was clever in a sneaky, conniving sort of way, and for that reason she considered him dangerous. Neither Borias nor she had ever trusted him, and in fact, Borias had ordered Dagnine flogged on more than one occasion as punishment for his insubordination. And while he had not caused any real problems since she herself had taken command of the army, she knew it was just a matter of time until he did.
The pain began, and she steeled herself to endure it silently and without moving. Concentrating her thoughts on Dagnine, she watched how he walked, his body slightly twisted, his head thrust forward. Severe battle wounds received some years ago had left him marked forever with a grotesque scar on the left side of his face and a left arm that was virtually useless. But he had refused to give up the warrior life, compensating for the weakness of his left side with the skill of his right, as well as with the strength of his cunning.
Feeling the pain ease up, she stepped quietly out of the shadows and moved towards him. "Dagnine," she called in a low voice.
He whirled to face her, clearly startled, but just as clearly trying to hide the fact that he was. "Xena!" he exclaimed, smiling in that false way she hated. "Did you get lonely in your little tent and decide to come out and visit me?"
"Don't flatter yourself, Dagnine," she said with her own false smile, "I just need to leave the camp to attend to some business, and I want to make sure you don't mistake me for a deserter and stab me in the back."
"Very prudent of you," he said, laughing. "But surely you don't think I would do such a thing."
"No, of course not," she said sweetly. "I expect my soldiers to recognize me at any hour of the day or night -- to recognize both my person and my command." She paused for a moment to let the words sink in, then continued, "Darphus will be in charge while I'm gone, and I don't want to hear you've given him any trouble."
He grinned. "Now Xena, you know I would never think of giving my commanders even a moment of trouble."
"If I knew that, we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we?" she returned, then added, "I'll be back in a day or so." She started moving away, but stopped when he spoke again.
"When are we going to get up enough nerve to attack those stinking centaurs?" he asked.
She turned back to face him, deciding to ignore his insinuation of cowardice. "Very, very soon," she said, and this time her smile was genuine.
He seemed pleased with this answer and she walked away from him across the moonlit field, aware of his eyes on her back. She walked as deliberately and as confidently as she could, although her pace was, of necessity, somewhat heavy and awkward. And as she felt the next pain coming on, she made herself keep walking, concentrating on putting one foot steadily in front of the other. She walked away without looking back, walked away from Dagnine, whom she did not trust in the slightest, and to whom she could never give the power of knowing her secret.
* * *
In the woods on the other side of the field, she stopped and leaned her back against a tree for several minutes while she caught her breath. Everything seemed so difficult these days -- sleeping, walking, getting dressed, sometimes even breathing. How could this small thing growing inside her cause such a huge disruption in her life? It didn't seem fair that this should have happened. She had done nothing to deserve it, other than to be born a woman. Could this be why so few women became warriors? Well, men were the lucky ones, she had always known that.
Glancing back towards the camp, she saw that Dagnine had resumed his rounds. The cold night air was creeping under her cloak and making the still-wet trousers feel icy. She needed to get moving. She needed to get to the cave, where she could light a fire and warm herself. Straightening up, she drew a deep breath and let it out, then began to make her way through the deep shadows among the trees. She knew the route well, but could not travel very fast, both because of the partial darkness and because of the heaviness of her body. After a time, she came to a more open area, a place where dry grasses poked up between the rocks, and where a stream, swollen by the winter rains, made its turgid way down from the hills.
She walked along beside the stream for some distance, following a dim game trail, pausing periodically to rest and wait for contractions to pass. Eventually, the path began to climb, leading slowly and gradually upwards, with rocky outcroppings on one side and the stream on the other. She continued her laborious trek for a while longer, watching the landmarks closely. Then, finally, she turned off the trail and rounded the large boulder which hid the entrance to the cave.
Standing beside the opening, she listened carefully for a short time, then drew her sword and stepped into the black interior. The moonlight did not penetrate here, but she knew the contours of the small cavern well, knew where everything was -- or knew, at least, where she had left everything at the end of her last visit a few days ago. She felt her way slowly along the left wall until she came to the blankets and furs which lay spread out on the ground, like a gentle invitation to her tired body. Kneeling on the bedding, she listened again, but heard no sound other than her own labored breathing. Cautiously, she laid down her sword, her bundle, and the waterskin, then took off the belt which held her scabbard. Crawling forward a couple of paces, she located the woodpile by touch and began to lay a fire on the ashes within the circle of stones. When the kindling was ready, and the tinder in place, she struck two flints together and quickly blew the spark into a flame.
A new contraction began, but she ignored it as best she could, continuing to nurse the tiny flame, bending over it on hands and knees, fanning it carefully until the bigger pieces of wood started to catch. When the fire was burning well at last, she clambered to her feet and opened her cloak, found the knotted drawstring of her trousers and untied it, then slid the damp garment down over her belly. It dropped to her feet and she kicked it aside, then stepped to the fire and held the cloak open so that the heat could warm and dry her legs.
In a short time, the yellow firelight flickered its way into the dark corners of the cavern, making the stone walls appear strangely soft and warm. It was not a particularly large cave -- perhaps some eight paces by twelve -- but it was plenty big enough for her purposes. She had found it soon after the siege began, had sought it out in the same instinctual way that a mother wolf seeks a den. And after having found it, she had visited the place often, gradually stocking it with food, bedding, and a good supply of firewood.
She had spent the night there, too, on more than one occasion, trying to accustom her troops to her eccentric pattern of comings and goings. And her ploy had apparently been successful. Deros and Dagnine had both accepted her leaving tonight without blinking an eye. Darphus, too, would think of it as a now-normal occurrence, and command of the army would pass smoothly to him. And if she died this day in childbirth and never returned? Well, she suspected that Darphus had certain ambitions of leadership. He would be a happy man.
She smiled grimly and stepped away from the fire, then lowered her heavy body onto the bedroll. After checking to make sure her sword was within easy reach, she leaned back against the wall of the cave, covered her now-bare legs with her cloak, and took a long drink from the waterskin. She had considered coming here alone to give birth, had considered it very seriously, in fact, aware that her secret would be safer if no one else was involved. But although she knew a great deal about healing, and about treating every manner of battle wound, she had had little contact with other women, and almost no experience with childbirth.
That's why she had decided, in the end, to hire the midwife. She had realized, at a certain point, that while she was not afraid to die in battle, she was indeed afraid to die in childbirth, as so many women did. Above all, she was afraid to die alone, in this weak, woman's way, alone in a cave where her body might never be found and given a warrior's final rites.
The pain gathered once more within her, stronger this time, and she allowed herself a low moan. How bad would the pain get? Would it be more than she could bear? Surely not, for she had known much pain already -- had known the pain of battle wounds, had felt swords and arrows pierce and tear her flesh. And she had known the pain of crucifixion, the agony of having both her legs broken at Caesar's command. Yes, she had known pain, had endured it, had lived with it, had triumphed over it. Surely she could do so again.
But she kept remembering the screams, kept remembering how, as a young girl, she and the other children had sometimes stood outside one of the homes in their village, hearing a woman's screams from within, feeling both the fear and the fascination of knowing what those screams meant. And she remembered most vividly of all the night her brother Lyceus was born, remembered it clearly even though she had been only two years old, remembered the pure terror she had felt at hearing her own mother's screams.
Her mother. Cyrene. Suddenly, Xena found herself wishing she could simply conjure her up from one of the rocks inside this cave. Cyrene had suffered through this ordeal not once, but three times. She would know what to do. She would know what words to say to comfort her daughter. She would hold her hand and smooth her brow just as she had when Xena was a child. Yes, maybe she should have gone home to Amphipolis to have her baby. Maybe she should have abandoned her army, turned her back on the warrior life, and gone home to her mother.
But no. To arrive home as she was, unmarried and heavily pregnant, would have only added to her mother's shame. Cyrene would reject her, as would the people of Amphipolis. Oh, they had been happy enough in the beginning to have her lead the defense of their town, but their pride had soon turned to anger. When their sons marched eagerly off to battle and never came home again, the villagers blamed Xena. The fools! Didn't they realize that wars could not be fought nor peace won without some loss of life? Did they think she did not feel their pain? Her own brother, Lyceus, had also been killed. Lyceus, the little brother she adored, the little brother she had taken care of and played with for so many years. He had been brutally killed in that first fight against Cortese. She had always done everything she could to protect her soldiers, but she was not a miracle worker, after all. What did they expect?
But soon she would have all the power she needed to triumph. Soon she would crush the centaurs and capture the Ixion stone. With the power of the stone, and with Ares' blessing, she would conquer the world and rule in peace as the Warrior Queen. Then she would go back to Amphipolis and they would have to honor her. They would see then that she had chosen the right path. They would wave palms to welcome her and would fall down at her feet. They would love her then, wouldbe glad to claim her as one of their own. They would honor her as their beloved daughter, the peasant girl who had become the all-powerful Conqueror.
Another contraction gripped her and she gasped, not so much because of the pain as because of the words which suddenly sounded in her head. "To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the Way." And in her mind's eye, the speaker of those words appeared, a slender, silk-clad woman with black hair and almond skin, a woman whose dark eyes shone with wisdom and peace. Lao Ma. Xena clamped her hands over her eyes, trying to erase the image. She did not want to think about Lao Ma. She had enough pain to deal with right now without the added pain of those memories. When she had left the Kingdom of Chin, she had shut all those memories away in a corner of her mind, had closed the door on them and resolutely turned the key in the lock. But now it seemed they had escaped. How had it happened? And why now? Had Lao Ma herself somehow set them free? Had she used her powers to break down the door and release the memories just to torment her warrior princess?
Xena opened her eyes, sighed a deep sigh of frustration, and heaved herself awkwardly to her feet. Moving to the fire, she added more wood, then began to pace distractedly the length of the cavern and back again. Lao Ma had saved her life -- there could be no question about that. She had saved her from the fangs of Ming Tzu's dogs. "Come with me, if you want your freedom," she had told the warrior, and Xena had gone with her, seeking freedom only from a horrible, bloody death. But later Lao Ma had offered her freedom of a different sort, had handed her the key that could unlock the cage of anger in which Xena had imprisoned herself.
But it had been so hard, so very hard to give up the bloodlust that had nourished and sustained her ever since Caesar's betrayal and M'Lila's death. Her rage was the focus of her life, the only meaning in her existence. If she gave it up, what would be left? The thought was much too frightening to contemplate.
And yet, out of devotion to Lao Ma, she had indeed tried to give it up, and had made some poor attempt to bring her feral will under control. Out of her devotion to the woman who had saved her life, she had done this. And she had done it, too, out of awe for Lao Ma's power, and out of a certain desire to gain that same kind of power for herself. The surprising thing was that there had been moments -- entire hours, even -- when her efforts had met with success. She would never forget the day Lao Ma had healed her legs, would never forget the exquisite sense of wholeness she had experienced while the other woman's hands moved over her. She had felt Lao Ma's healing power like a glow of perfect peace within her body. She had never known anything like it before, and probably never would again.
Xena paused in her pacing, sensing the start of another contraction. She slid her hands under her tunic, running them slowly over the bare flesh of her distended belly, wishing that it were Lao Ma's hands which touched her, wishing for the deep comfort that only that gentle woman could bring. "Lao Ma," she moaned softly, bending over slightly as the pain increased. "I betrayed your trust. I'm so sorry," she whispered. Then, after a minute or so, when the pain eased, she slowly straightened, and began to walk again.
She should have known the joy could not last, that the ecstasy of healing love she had felt that day would quickly vanish. Yet for a brief time she had managed to surrender her will, and her legs had been made well and strong again. Afterwards, she had actually floated in the air with Lao Ma, serenely radiant, basking in the warmth of her teacher's smile and soft caresses. How long would it have lasted if Borias had not walked in? Why had he come and spoiled everything, the bastard? She had been making such progress, and she had seen the pride and love in Lao Ma's eyes. But Borias' arrival had shattered the golden peace within her just as Lao Ma had shattered that vase a few days before. Everything Xena had gained was lost, and it was all his fault.
Coming to a stop near one of the cavern's walls, she kicked at it angrily. Then, leaning her head against the cool, rough surface, she closed her eyes and sighed. No, it had not been Borias' fault. She knew that. Lao Ma had invited him to the palace, apparently believing that Xena was now ready to forgive. But Lao Ma had been gravely mistaken. One glimpse of Borias was all it took to bring the warrior's lust for vengeance pouring back through the floodgates of her soul. She could not let his cruel betrayal simply go unpunished, and so she had attacked him viciously, with all the fury of her fists and the strength of her newly-healed legs. But, to her surprise, he did not lift a finger to defend himself. Lao Ma was forced to protect him, Lao Ma, who must have been feeling such pain to see the fruits of her labors so quickly thrown away. But for Xena, the old ways had proved too powerful, too alluring, too familiar, and in the end, they had won out.
Oh, she and Borias had been reconciled, all right -- in an act of wild, sexual frenzy. And afterwards, he had helped her snare the barbarous Ming Tzu in a dice game, and then murder him. Only Lao Ma's fierce intervention had kept Ming T'ien from meeting the same fate as his father. Xena and Borias had left the Kingdom of Chin a few days later, had left at the fervent request of Lao Ma, whose trust they had betrayed and whose dreams for peace they had laid waste. After a long journey by sea and by land, they had at last arrived in Greece, where they had soon managed to kill three warlords, take over their armies, and continue their quest for power and wealth. And in all that time, in all the months since leaving Chin, in all their long days and long nights together, they had not even once spoken of Lao Ma.
Xena straightened up as a new contraction took hold of her. The pains seemed to be more intense now, spreading from her womb to her lower back, and this one was the worst so far. When it eased up, she moved to the opening of the cavern. Pulling the cloak tighter around her, she stepped out from behind the large boulder and peered up at the sky, noting the position of the constellations. The moon still lingered, low and slightly hazy, in the western sky. Within the hour, it would set, and the first hints of dawn would soon follow. She turned her gaze to look down the hillside, scanning the rough trail for as far as she could see. There was no sign of movement, no hint that anyone was coming. Glancing back at the moon, Xena shifted her weight impatiently. Where was that girl, that Calandra, the one she had hired to be her midwife? Surely Deros had delivered the message and the girl was on her way to the cave by now. But maybe she couldn't find it -- even though, when Xena had brought her here two weeks ago, Calandra had said she knew the area well and could find the place again easily.
Frowning, Xena went back into the cave. Maybe Calandra had simply decided not to come. Who knew if the girl could even be trusted? She might have just taken the retainer fee with no intention of following through on her promise. She might be sitting in her house right now, laughing at the warrior's plight. Well, Xena knew she could get through this thing alone, if she had to. How hard could it be to have a baby, after all? You just sweated through a few hours of pain, pushed the baby out, and cut the cord. It was as simple as that. And when it was over, when she had gotten through it, she would hunt that worthless girl down and make her suffer. Yes, she would be more than sorry she had ever even considered breaking her word to the Warrior Princess!
It had not been difficult for Xena to find the village midwife. One discreet inquiry, made of a woman carrying a baby in the marketplace, had led her to the small house where Petra lived, beside the blacksmith's shop. But Petra had been unwilling to meet the demands Xena put forth. She had other clients, she said, women of the village, who were likely to give birth soon. She would not desert them to run off to a remote cave in the hills someplace to deliver Xena's baby. Frustrated, the warrior had offered more money, had argued and fumed, but seemingly to no avail. Then at last, Petra had left the room and returned with the girl, whom she introduced as her daughter, Calandra.
Xena had balked, at first, at the idea of using a girl of only sixteen winters as her midwife. But Petra assured her that Calandra had been helping attend births for the past five years, and vouched strongly for her competence. Xena still wasn't happy, but she appeared to have no options. So the three of them had haggled over the details of the arrangement and the fee to be paid, until finally all was settled. Calandra had agreed to come at any time to the cave and to stay there for as long as she was needed. And most important of all, both she and Petra had promised to keep their mouths shut about the entire affair.
As well they should, Xena thought, considering what she was paying. She made her way to the back part of the cavern and crouched down beside the rocks where she had stashed her supplies. Sorting through them quickly, she pulled out a small cooking pot, then crossed to the bedroll to pick up the waterskin. Taking both items outside, she walked to the edge of the stream and knelt down, dipping first the waterskin and then the pot into the cold water. When both were full, she got to her feet and carried them, dripping, back towards the cave, stopping to look down the path once more before retreating to her rocky den.
The fire had made the cave warmer, and Xena found a certain measure of comfort in its cheerful glow. She set the pot down a short distance from the fire circle and then added a couple of good-sized logs to the flames. Resuming her seat on the bedroll, she leaned back against the rock wall and closed her eyes. For the first time, she allowed herself to feel her body's weariness. What a pathetic excuse for a warrior she was -- her labor had barely begun, and she already felt so tired. She grimaced as the pain came again, tensing her body to meet it. Then, as the contraction began to weaken, she relaxed and, without any intention of doing so, fell asleep.
She dreamed that she was running -- running on crippled legs over rough terrain, trying to escape Ming Tzu's dogs. With each step she took, her legs felt heavier, and the ache grew stronger in the old broken bones. Her terror mounted as the dogs gained on her. Already she could hear them panting and snarling and snapping their teeth. Gasping for breath, she forced herself forward, step after torturous step. If she could just get to Lao Ma, she knew she would be safe. And so she ran on and on, until finally her legs gave out and she sprawled on the ground, clutching at Lao Ma's silk robe. "Help me!" she gasped. But Lao Ma only shook her head. "I cannot help you, Xena," she said sadly. "I cannot help you until you learn to love peace and forgiveness more than you love anger and hate." Then, pulling her robe loose from Xena's grasp, she turned and walked away.
"No!" cried Xena. "Lao Ma!" But the dogs were already upon her, snarling and ripping into the soft flesh of her belly, sending a shock wave of pain through her body. She woke with a strangled cry, startled to find someone standing between her and the fire. Snatching up her sword, she thrust its point defensively at the intruder. The silhouetted figure was that of a woman -- a slender woman with dark hair and dark eyes -- and Xena, in the first moments of fear and pain following her nightmare, believed it to be Lao Ma. Almost immediately, she realized her mistake.
"Calandra," she said flatly. "It's about time you showed up. I was beginning to think you weren't coming."
"Well, it doesn't look like you've had the baby yet," the girl said offhandedly, "so I guess I'm here in plenty of time. And besides," she continued, "if I'd known I would be greeted at swordpoint, I might have reconsidered about coming at all." She slipped off a pack she'd been carrying over one shoulder and set it down. "Why would you take a thing like that with you anyway, when you're just going off to a cave to have a baby?"
Xena slowly lowered the sword, then laid it aside. The flippant tone of the girl's voice grated harshly on her nerves. "I'm a warrior," she said coldly. "I don't go anywhere without a weapon."
Calandra shrugged and unwrapped the wool mantle she was wearing over her linen chiton. Picking up her pack, she moved to the other side of the fire and laid her belongings down. "It's actually kind of homey in here, with the fire and all," she said, looking around.
Xena watched her, but felt no need to answer.
The girl moved closer to the fire and held her hands out to warm them. Looking across at Xena, she now became very businesslike. "When did the pains begin?" she asked.
"I had dull pains all day, kind of like cramps," the warrior responded. "Then the sharper pains began around midnight. And my water broke."
"Good," Calandra said, nodding. "I assume you've made an offering to Hera," she added.
"Why would I do that?"
"Well, to ensure a safe delivery, of course," Calandra said, sounding surprised.
Xena laughed. "I don't put much faith in that god stuff," she said. "The only god I care anything about is Ares, and I doubt if he takes much interest in the fact that I'm having a baby."
The girl didn't answer, only stared at the warrior and rubbed her hands together somewhat nervously. After a few moments, she came over and knelt beside Xena. "I need to check to see how far along you are," she said.
Xena looked at her and then opened her cloak.
Calandra folded back the tunic and ran her hands over the warrior's belly, probing gently here and there. "The baby seems to be in a good position for delivery," she said, then glanced at Xena's face and added, "Now I'll just find out how much you've opened up."
She slid her hand down and Xena suddenly realized what the girl intended to do. Biting her lip, she slowly spread her legs apart. The last woman to touch her in that place had been Lao Ma. She fixed her gaze on the opposite wall of the cave and resolutely shut out the memory.
"The opening is about two fingers wide right now," Calandra reported, holding up one hand to demonstrate. "Before the baby can be born, the opening has to be five fingers wide."
Xena frowned. "How long will that take?" she asked.
Calandra laughed. "If I knew that, I could be the oracle at Delphi, now, couldn't I? It will take as long as it takes. With every birth, it's different, but my guess is that it will be at least six or eight more hours."
"Six or eight more hours!" Xena exclaimed, slamming her fist down on the blankets. "I haven't got time for this! I have an army to lead and a war to fight! What in Zeus' name am I doing stuck here in this wretched cave waiting for--" She broke off with a small gasp as the pain of a new contraction caught her by surprise.
"Maybe you should have thought about that before you messed around and got pregnant," Calandra said, with irritating smugness.
"Getting pregnant wasn't my idea, believe me," Xena said grimly through her pain.
Calandra laughed. "Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, finally conquered by a tiny little baby! That's quite an image, isn't it?" she said. "And just what are you going to do with the child once it's born?" she went on. "It's really going to cramp your style to have to nurse a baby out on the battlefield, isn't it? Have you figured out yet how you're going to do that?"
"I'm not," Xena said bluntly.
"Oh, you're not. Well what, exactly, are you going to do with the child?" Calandra asked sarcastically. "Are you going to just kill it, like you do everyone else who gets in your way? Is that why you brought the sword? So you could kill your baby as soon as it's born?"
Xena met the girl's gaze unflinchingly, but offered no answer. She saw Calandra's eyes slowly widen in horror.
"You are, aren't you?" the girl whispered. "You're going to kill your baby!"
"What I do with the child is my own business," Xena said, her voice cold and flat.
"No, you're wrong about that," Calandra shot back. "You're paying me to help you deliver a healthy baby, and that makes it my business, too!"
"I'm paying you to help me get through this thing alive."
"Oh, and you don't even care what happens to the baby?"
Xena hesitated for the slightest moment, and then said, "No, I don't."
Calandra sat back on her heels, shaking her head slowly as she continued to stare at the warrior. "I've never heard a mother talk like this," she said finally.
"I'm not a mother," Xena snapped. "I didn't choose to be a mother, and I refuse to be called by that name!"
"What about the baby's father?" Calandra asked. "Does he feel the same way? Or do you even know who the father is?" she finished, in a snide tone of voice.
Instantly, Xena's hands shot out, her fingers deftly targeting the pressure points on Calandra's neck. The girl gasped in sudden pain and fear. "What have you done to me?" she choked out.
Xena grinned. "I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she said calmly. "If I don't release the pressure points, you'll die in less than a minute. That's how easily I can kill you, and don't think I won't do it, if you make me angry enough." She leaned close to the girl and tipped her face up so that the frightened dark eyes looked into her own. "Now, you don't have to like me," she went on. "That's not what I'm paying you for. I'm paying you to do your job, which does not include insulting me. I don't like being insulted. It makes me angry -- especially when I'm in pain. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Good," said the warrior. Then, in a quick motion, she released the pressure points and sat back against the wall again.
Calandra slumped forward, her body trembling as she drew in great, ragged breaths. Her long, black hair lay spread across the bedding and over one of the warrior's legs. Xena felt her rage drain away almost as quickly as it had come, the physical sensation of it now replaced by a sharp labor pain. She closed her eyes for a few moments, then opened them and sat watching the girl's huddled figure, feeling all at once strangely moved by Calandra's youth and vulnerability. Perhaps she had acted too harshly. Lao Ma would have said she was using an axe to kill a mosquito. Xena smiled grimly. Well, it was probably too late to feel sorry now. The damage had been done. Calandra would likely go running home to her mother, and the warrior would be left all alone to give birth.
Maybe it would help if she apologized. But apologies had always come hard for her. She reached out to touch the dark hair where it lay across her leg. She hesitated and then, finally, she said in a low voice, "Calandra, I--" She stopped to take a deep breath. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."
The girl raised her head and stared at the warrior, but she did not speak. After a moment, she got slowly to her feet and moved, a bit unsteadily, to the other side of the fire.
"You're going to leave me now, aren't you?" Xena asked. "Well, go ahead. Everyone else does."
Again the dark eyes turned to her, and after what seemed like a long time, Calandra said, "I guess it's really true what they say about you."
"What do they say?"
"That you're a ruthless killer who cares nothing for anyone or anything except herself."
Xena sighed. "I suppose that's an accurate description," she said. "But if you knew I was like that, why did you agree to be my midwife?"
"I guess I didn't quite believe that anyone could be that evil," the girl said, staring briefly at the fire before looking back at Xena. "But mainly I agreed to come because of the money," she went on. "Most of the women whose babies we deliver try to pay us somehow -- maybe with some vegetables they've grown, or some eggs, or even a whole chicken. Or sometimes they give us a nice piece of fabric that they've woven. But the chance to earn as many dinars as you wereoffering-- I just couldn't pass that up."
"Don't you have a father to help support you?"
Calandra shook her head. "No, he took off when I was very young and never came back again," she said. "Since then, my mother has supported us with her work as a midwife and by doing some sewing and weaving."
Xena was silent for a minute, then she said, "My father left, too, when I was young. I just woke up one morning and he was gone. My mother said she didn't think he'd ever come back, and it turned out she was right."
"So we have something in common," Calandra said.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that." Xena looked at the girl for a moment and then looked away.
Calandra bent to pick up some wood and add it to the fire. "Was it just you and your mother after he left?"
"No, I had two brothers. We ran a tavern. I guess my mother still does. I haven't seen her for years."
"Do you miss her?"
"Sometimes," Xena said. "Mostly I try not to think about her." Struggling to her feet, she walked to the rocks at the back of the cavern. Another contraction was beginning, but she tried to ignore it. She knelt down and pulled out a roll of furs and blankets from the pile of supplies. Then, as the pain increased, she clutched at one of the rocks and moaned softly.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up to see Calandra bending over her. "Must be a bad one," the girl said.
"I'll be all right in a minute," Xena muttered.
"Where do you feel the pain?"
"Here," the warrior said, putting a hand on her lower back, "and also around here in the front."
"Well, I hate to tell you this, but it's going to get quite a bit worse before it gets better," the young midwife said with a crooked smile.
"Yeah, I know," Xena said grimly. The pain faded and she straightened up, offering the bedroll to Calandra. "These are for you, if you think you want to stick around."
"If I promise not to insult you, will you promise not to kill me?" she asked.
"Okay, then I'll stay." Calandra grinned and reached out to take the bedding. Returning to the fire, she began to lay out her bed across the fire circle from Xena's. "What kind of food did you bring?" she asked.
"Nothing fancy," Xena said. She stood up and walked to the back wall, where a basket hung suspended from an outcropping above her head. The rope which held the basket was knotted around a small boulder, and untying this, she lowered the basket.
"Why did you hang it up there?" Calandra asked.
"To keep animals out of it."
"Oh. Good idea."
Xena peered into the basket. "It's mostly dried stuff -- fish and vegetables and fruit. Oh, and a packet of salt and some herbs for tea." She handed the basket to Calandra, then went back to her own bedroll and opened the bundle she had brought from the camp. "I've also got some bread and fresh fruit. Here, put this in the basket," she said, handing over the food.
"Are you hungry? I can make some fish broth," Calandra said, looking up at the warrior. "It will help keep up your strength."
"Okay," said Xena, although she didn't feel very hungry.
The girl went to work cutting the dried fish into pieces, while Xena resumed her restless pacing. For a time, neither of them spoke, but then Calandra said, "How did you become a warrior?"
Xena sighed. She didn't feel much like being sociable and this girl was proving to be more talkative than she had expected. "A warlord attacked our village," she said in a tired voice, "and my brother and I organized a defense." Xena stopped speaking as a new contraction began. Leaning against the cave wall, she waited for it to pass, and then began walking again.
"What happened after that?" Calandra asked. "After you defended your village?"
"I took our little army out and started conquering all the towns around there. I was just going to make a buffer to keep Amphipolis safe, but one thing led to another and-- Well, I ended up a warlord myself."
The girl considered this information for a moment, then said, "How old are you?"
Xena stood still and stared at her.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I shouldn't have asked that!" the girl said quickly.
"No, it's all right-- It's just--" Xena paused in confusion. "I guess I don't really know how old I am anymore. I haven't been keeping track. Let me think." She calculated in silence for a few moments. "Nineteen," she said finally. "I must be nineteen. Or maybe twenty. But I really think it's nineteen."
"So you're not much older than I am," Calandra said softly.
"No. Not in years, anyway." Another pain came, and Xena moved to the back of the cavern and sat on one of the rocks there.
Calandra watched her for a moment and then dumped the fish and some salt into the cooking pot and set it in the coals at the edge of the fire. "You must be a good commander," she said. "Otherwise the men wouldn't follow you into battle."
"Yeah, I'm good," Xena said with a cynical smile. "In fact, leading an army may be the only thing I'm good at."
Calandra regarded the warrior for a few moments, then asked abruptly, "Are you going to kill the centaurs?"
"Absolutely!" the warrior said, her smile broadening into a grin. "I'm going to kill them all! Just as soon as this crazy birthing business is over, my army is going to wipe them off the face of the earth!"
"But why?" Calandra asked. "Why kill them? What do they have that you want?"
Xena's grin faded and she looked narrowly at the girl. Did Calandra know about the Ixion stone? How could she? No one in her army even knew about the stone. Only she and Borias had known, and they had had a difficult time of it torturing the information out of one of the centaurs they'd captured. She got up and began to walk again, more slowly this time. "It's not that they have anything I want," she said, as casually as possible. "It's just that they are dirty, disgusting creatures, and the world would be better off without them. That's reason enough to kill them. Surely the people in the village would agree."
"Yes, some of them would," Calandra admitted. "Some villagers hate the centaurs, just as you do. But some of us feel differently." She bent forward to stir the broth, and Xena stopped her pacing and stood watching her.
"We've had a lot of contact with the centaurs," the girl went on, "more than most people have, I guess, since their settlement is so close to our village. Many of us played with centaur children when we were young. We attended their celebrations and they often came to ours."
Feeling another contraction beginning, Xena moved slowly back to the rock and sat down. "So you like the centaurs?" she asked, incredulously.
"Yeah. Well, I mean they're just like anybody else. Some are more likable than others." She hesitated, and then added, "My older sister married one of them."
"Married one of them!" Xena exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding!"
Calandra shook her head.
"You mean to tell me that your sister actually shared a bed with one of those filthy animals? That she let him--"
"Yes! And he wasn't a filthy animal!" Calandra said fiercely. "He was kind and brave, and he loved her deeply. They loved each other very much and they were very happy together!"
The girl turned away and stared into the fire for a minute. Then she got to her feet and began to pace slowly, as Xena had done. "My sister died in childbirth two years ago," she said quietly. She stopped a couple of paces from the warrior and looked at her, then turned away and went on speaking, as if to the wall of the cave. "My mother and I did everything we could for her, but the baby was so big, and my sister's hips were so narrow. Both of them died . . . but only after three days of horrible agony." Her voice broke and she walked to the wall, reaching out with one hand to trace a pattern in the stone.
Xena sat watching her, not knowing what to say. She hoped the girl would go on talking, but she didn't, and when the silence had lasted for several minutes, the warrior finally felt compelled to break it. "A Roman I used to know--" she said, and shuddered slightly as Caesar's image flashed across her mind. "This Roman once told me there was a way to cut a woman open and take the baby out. In fact, he claimed that he himself had been delivered by this method."
Calandra turned and looked at her, and Xena was surprised at the depth of pain she saw in the girl's dark eyes. "Yes, we'd heard of that procedure, too," she said, "but we weren't sure how it should be done. My mother had never performed any type of surgery, so she was afraid to try it -- especially on her own daughter."
"But if you knew your sister was dying-- You might have at least been able to save the baby. I think I would have taken that risk."
"You would have taken that risk to save a baby centaur?" Calandra asked skeptically.
Xena looked away. She had forgotten that small detail.
The girl went back to the fire, crouched down, and stirred the contents of the pot again.
"Calandra," Xena said, "you, of all people, have good reason to hate the centaurs. It's their fault your sister died. If she hadn't married one of them, she would be alive today."
The girl sat back on her heels and looked at the warrior. "You have a strange sense of logic, Xena," she said. "My sister might have died in childbirth no matter who she married. It wasn't her husband's fault. He was such a gentle, caring soul. He would have died a thousand times if that would have kept her from harm. He stayed with her through the whole ordeal. She died in his arms." She stopped for a moment to brush her sleeve across her eyes. "He was devastated by her death -- I think he took it even harder than we did." She looked at Xena again. "I could never blame Kaleipus for what happened. Never, in a million years."
"Kaleipus!" Xena said in amazement. "Your sister was married to Kaleipus, the leader of the centaurs?"
"Well, he wasn't the leader then, but he is now. They couldn't have chosen a better leader, if you want my opinion. He's so brave and wise, and he cares so deeply about what is good and right. And he's not the only one, Xena. There are many wonderful, noble centaurs. All they want is peace. I don't see why you have to kill them."
Xena stared at her. Her mind was spinning, and the blur of thoughts and images made it impossible for her to think straight. All she knew for sure was that another contraction was about to start. "I'm going outside," she said. "I need some air." Then she lurched awkwardly to her feet and stumbled out of the cavern.
* * *
She stood on the verge of the stream, feeling the contraction swell and then ebb within her. The moon had set and only the dim outlines of the shapes around her were visible in the darkness. Could it be true, she wondered, staring at the rushing black water. Could it be true that Kaleipus and the other centaurs were really the fine and noble creatures Calandra had portrayed them to be? The girl was young and had seen little of the world. What did she know of goodness? Or of evil, either, for that matter? Xena, on the other hand, was well acquainted with evil. She knew that the centaurs were evil. She had been told so by many people. How could all those people be wrong?
But she could not shake the image of Kaleipus holding his dying wife in his arms. This was not the Kaleipus she had seen on the battlefield. The warrior Kaleipus was a skilled fighter, fierce and brave -- she would grant him that. But she had never imagined that he or any centaur was capable of human emotions such as love or grief. Yet Calandra would have her believe that such a thing was possible.
She sighed in frustration and raked her fingers distractedly through her tangled hair. She might have dismissed the girl's story more easily if it had not been for the fact that Borias had described the centaurs to her in much the same terms. "Noble," "generous," "honest" -- why had he used those words? And how had he come to see their enemies in such a positive light? Well, Borias was dead now and she would never know what had happened to change his thinking. It was just like him, though. He had always been thinking, always trying to understand his opponents and defeat them in some clever mind game. She herself had had neither the inclination nor patience for such nonsense. Those who wouldn't give in to her demands would simply be killed. That was the best way, the fastest way.
But it took a strong army to do things her way. It took a lot of power. That was why she needed the Ixion stone. And that was why Borias had apparently decided she shouldn't have it. What had he said to her that night? She cast back in her mind, trying to recall. "That much evil power doesn't belong in the hands of someone like you." That was what he had said. And she had responded sarcastically, "Oh, and it does belong in the hands of someone like you?" "No," he'd said, "neither one of us should have such power. The centaurs understand that and they will die before they let us get ahold of that stone." "Fine!" she'd said. "Let them die then. One way or another we'll still get the stone." "Not if they're all dead," he had said, wrapping his hand around the back of her head and pulling her roughly close so that he was speaking right into her face. "Not if they're all dead and no one is left to tell us where the stone is hidden." Then, releasing her abruptly, he had turned and stalked out of the tent.
That was his way, she thought. He had always been so logical about things, always trying to think things through instead of acting from the gut as she did. But why had he betrayed her? She still didn't understand it. When he betrayed her in Chin, the reason was obvious -- he was angry because she wrecked his negotiations, first with Ming Tzu and then with Lao Ma. And then he saw a way to profit from her kidnapping of the boy, Ming T'ien. Anger and greed -- those had been his motives, and they were motives she could easily comprehend.
But this thing with the centaurs -- that had been a different matter. Had Borias really been so convinced of the nobility of the enemy that he had gone over to their side? Had he so feared the consequences of Xena's getting hold of the Ixion stone that he had acted unselfishly for the greater good? She supposed that it was possible. But maybe he had only pretended to befriend the centaurs so that he could get the Ixion stone for himself. She swore softly under her breath. She would never know, for the grave would never reveal its secrets.
Turning, she walked back to the boulder at the cave entrance and slammed the palm of her hand against it. "Borias, you bastard," she muttered. "How could you leave me like that?" She leaned against the cold, rough surface for a moment, then pushed herself away and paced back toward the creek. He hadn't wanted her to have the power of the Ixion stone. Well, she would show him! She would get it anyway. There was no way he could stop her now.
The pain came again, not sharp this time, but an aching in her lower back. She felt the child moving within her and laid her hands on her belly. Then, for no reason at all, she began to think about Lao Ma again. Lao Ma had been through this. She had known the pain of giving birth. But unlike Xena, she had wanted her child, had wanted and loved him fiercely, even though Ming Tzu had sold her away to Lao and kept the boy for himself. Xena had not known, when she kidnapped the strange, silent child, that Ming T'ien was Lao Ma's son. Not that it would have made much difference. At that point, Xena would have simply viewed the corrupting of Ming T'ien as revenge for Lao Ma's civilizing influence on Borias. And she had done her best to corrupt the boy, teaching him what she herself had learned only by bitter experience -- that love was a fraud and that those who claimed to love you would only betray you in the end, betray you or reject you. Love was a thing of weakness, an emotion not to be trusted or believed in. That was what she had taught Ming T'ien. And she had taught him, too, the power of fear, that you could make people do anything you wanted them to if they were afraid of you.
She started at the sound of her name, and turned quickly toward the cave. In the dim light, she could just make out the figure of a woman with long, dark hair. "Lao Ma!" she exclaimed softly.
There was no answer for several moments, then the young woman said, "The broth is ready, if you want some," and disappeared behind the boulder.
Xena walked slowly back to the cavern, entered, and sat awkwardly on her bedroll. Calandra brought her a steaming bowl of broth and a large piece of bread, then returned to the other side of the fire and poured a bowl of broth for herself. Sitting cross-legged on her blanket, the girl regarded the warrior for a time in silence. Finally, she said, "What was that name you called me?"
"What name?" asked Xena, dipping her bread in the broth and chewing off a piece.
"I don't know. It was a strange name -- Lao or something like that."
"Yeah, that was it. I heard you say it once before, when I first got here. I think you were having a nightmare or something."
Xena glanced at the girl, then lifted her bowl with both hands and sipped from it.
"So who is he? Or she?" asked Calandra.
"A woman I knew in the Kingdom of Chin," Xena said flatly.
"The Kingdom of Chin? Where is that?"
"It's to the east, many weeks' journey from here."
"What were you doing there?"
"Mostly killing people," Xena said matter-of-factly. Then she bit into her bread and tore off a mouthful, watching the girl's reaction.
Calandra grimaced and sipped her broth. "Was Borias there, too?" she asked.
"Borias? What do you know about Borias?"
"Just that the centaurs consider him to be a great friend -- a hero almost."
"Oh," Xena said, raising her bowl to her mouth again.
"So was Borias there?" Calandra persisted. "Was he in that Chin place with you? Did he kill people, too?"
"Oh yes, he was there," Xena said with an evil grin, "and I'm sure he killed at least as many people as I did."
The girl chewed her bread silently for a time, then asked abruptly, "Is he the father of your baby?"
"You ask too many questions," Xena grumbled. She tipped her bowl up and drank the rest of her broth. Then, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, she glanced over at Calandra and saw that the girl was still waiting for an answer. "Yes," she said finally. "Borias is the father."
"What did he think about the baby? Did he think it should be killed?"
"He didn't know about the baby. He betrayed me," Xena said bitterly. "He betrayed me and deserted me. I never got the chance to tell him."
Calandra got up and moved around the fire to take Xena's bowl. "Are you the one who killed him?" she asked.
"No," the warrior said in a tired voice. "I ordered him captured and brought to me unharmed. I don't know who killed him."
"Did you love him?"
Xena stared at the girl as a sudden realization struck her. Looking down at her swollen belly, she said in amazement, "The pains have stopped."
"Yeah. I haven't had one since I came back in here."
"Did you have any while you were outside?"
"One or two, but they were weaker than before."
Calandra crouched down beside Xena, setting the empty bowl aside. She felt the position of the baby and then checked the opening again. "Three fingers," she said and sat back on her heels.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked anxiously. "Why did the contractions stop?"
Calandra shrugged. "It happens sometimes. My mother says it happens when a baby is having second thoughts about being born." She gave the warrior a hard look. "Would you want to be born, knowing that your mother was waiting to kill you as soon as you came out?" she asked.
Xena looked at her without answering.
Calandra picked up the empty broth bowl and stood up. "The contractions will start again," she said. "In the meantime, I suggest you get some sleep, if you can."
Xena sat there, still without moving, watching the girl cleaning up the bowls and adding wood to the fire.
After several minutes, Calandra looked over at her. She hesitated, then came back around the fire and knelt next to the warrior. "Why don't you take your cloak off," she said. "Then you can lie down and I'll cover you with it."
Xena unfastened the cloak and leaned forward so that Calandra could take it off of her. But when the girl reached over to do so, Xena laid a hand on her arm. "Isn't there some way to get the contractions started again?" she asked urgently. "Some herbs or something? I need to get this over with. I have to get back to my army."
Calandra shook her head. "The baby will be born when it's ready," she said. "You can't make it come any faster just by willing it."
"Stop willing," a gentle voice repeated in Xena's head. It was the voice of Lao Ma.
Calandra patted the blanket beside the warrior. "Just lie down and try to rest," she said.
Xena stretched out on her back and Calandra spread the cloak over her.
"Do you want to take your boots off?" the girl asked.
"Yeah," said Xena and started to sit up again.
"Lie still. I'll do it."
Xena hesitated, then sank back down on the blankets, wondering how bad her feet smelled after not having been washed for a couple of days. Letting someone else take care of her made her feel distinctly uncomfortable. She much preferred to take care of herself.
Calandra unlaced the boots and pulled them off, then gently began to massage one of the warrior's feet.
"What are you doing?" Xena demanded, pushing herself up on her elbows.
"I'm rubbing your feet," the girl said with a smile. "Just lie back and enjoy it."
Xena lay down again. "Is that part of your job," she asked, "rubbing pregnant women's stinky feet?"
"It's part of my job to help you relax, so it will be easier for the baby to be born."
"I'm not very good at relaxing," Xena said.
"Well, try to, anyway. Does this feel good, what I'm doing to your feet?"
"Just close your eyes, then, and think about how it feels."
Reluctantly, Xena closed her eyes, then took a few slow, deep breaths.
"Do you know what I like to think about when I'm trying to relax?" Calandra asked.
"What?" mumbled Xena, having no real interest in knowing.
"I like to imagine that I'm just sort of floating in a great big pool of warm water."
Xena didn't answer. The girl's small hands and soothing movements reminded her of Lao Ma's. Little by little, she felt the tension sliding away from her heavy body. And then, at last, she sank into the soft darkness of sleep.
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 hairfloated 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.
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
Return to The Bard's Corner