The Birth of Solan by Eva Allen--Part 2
Constructive criticism and unadulterated praise are always welcome! Write to me at emallen@earthlink.net

PART 2

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?"

Calandra nodded.

"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 were offering…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.

"I promise."

"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!"

"Were?"

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.

"Xena."

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."

"Lao Ma?"

"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."

"They've 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?"

"Yes."

"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.

Continue to Part 3

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