The Birth of Solan by Eva Allen--Part 3
Constructive criticism and unadulterated praise are always welcome! Write to me at emallen@earthlink.net

PART 3

She dreamed a memory -- a peaceful memory in which her body felt light and warm, suspended languorously in the fragrant water of the bath in Lao Ma's palace. It was not that first day she was remembering -- not that terrifying space of time when she had hidden from Ming Tzu, her heart pounding and lungs bursting, in this same bath. No, it was a day or so later, early evening, and Xena lounged alone in the soothing water amid the glow of candlelight. But she paid scant attention to her surroundings, her mind being occupied instead with thoughts of what she had witnessed that afternoon. She had seen Lao Ma shatter a vase without touching it -- using only the power of her mind. It had been an amazing performance, done apparently without effort, yet when Xena herself had tried it, concentrating all her willpower on the task, nothing at all had happened. In fact, Lao Ma had laughed at her.

The warrior sighed and moved a few steps forward through the water, then let herself sink down so that she was totally submerged. She stayed under for a few moments, breathing out slowly through her nose. Then, drifting back to the surface, she emerged face-first, her dark hair swirling around her. The whole world was driven by a will, Lao Ma had told her, but in order to transcend the world's limitations, it was necessary to conquer one's own will. Xena didn't understand it. She didn't understand how she could stop willing or why doing so would give her the kind of power Lao Ma had. The concept seemed radically opposed to everything she had lived and believed up until now.

Moving to the edge of the bath, she sat on an underwater ledge with only her head and shoulders out of the water. Soft tendrils of hair floated in front of her and reaching out, she wrapped one loosely around her fingers. Then, hearing the sound of a door, she looked up to see Lao Ma crossing the room. Her bare feet whispered softly across the smooth stone floor until she came to a stop near the bath. She was wearing only a simple blue robe, and her unbound hair cascaded down over her shoulders.

"May I join you," Lao Ma asked with a quiet smile, "or would you rather be alone to do some thinking?"

"No, get in," Xena said, gesturing awkwardly.

Slipping out of her robe, Lao Ma let the garment fall to the floor, then stepped to the edge of the bath and sat down. It was the first time Xena had seen the other woman unclothed, and she found herself strangely moved by the sight -- the golden skin of her breasts and stomach, the dark triangle of hair below. But realizing that she was staring, Xena quickly looked down, watching the water lap gently at her own breasts as Lao Ma entered it.

"The water feels nice, doesn't it?" Lao Ma said after a moment. "It's warm and soft, yet strong enough to bear our weight. Do you know what Ming Tzu said to me that day while you were hiding here?"

Xena shook her head.

"He said I was a strange woman -- that I was soft and hard at the same time. I told him I was like water, which can be very soft, and yet hard as a raging flood. I think it's a good image, don't you?"

"Yes. It fits you," said Xena.

Lao Ma smiled and then ducked herself under the water. When she came up, glistening droplets of water clung to her eyelashes and slid down the smooth almond skin of her face. Looking at her, Xena felt a distinct sense of pleasure, and this time she did not avert her eyes. Far from appearing to mind the warrior's interest, Lao Ma returned her gaze frankly. Then, after a few moments, she seated herself on the stone ledge near Xena.

The warrior shifted her position self-consciously and began to play with a floating lotus petal. Even after spending several days in the palace, she still had no idea what to say to this mysterious woman to whom she felt so strangely attracted. She could not understand why Lao Ma had befriended her nor what she would demand in exchange for having saved her life. And the fact that she was so distinctly clueless made Xena very nervous.

After a short time, Lao Ma broke the silence. "Does the water make your legs feel better?" she asked.

Xena looked at her. "Yeah, it does," she said.

"Do they hurt all the time, or only when you walk?"

"Mostly when I stand or walk, but sometimes they ache in the night and I can't sleep."

"What happened to them?"

"They were broken."

"Both of them at once?"

Xena nodded.

"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."

"Me, too."

"So I noticed," Xena commented.

"The pains have started again, haven't they?"

"Yes."

"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?"

"Exhausted."

"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.

Continue to Part 4

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