The Birth of Solan by Eva Allen--Part 5
Constructive criticism and unadulterated praise are always welcome! Write to me at emallen@earthlink.net

PART 5

She woke, several hours later, to the sound of the baby's whimpering and offered him a nipple, which he accepted. But he only nursed for a short time before falling asleep again. Xena reached behind her for a blanket and covered herself and the baby with it. The fact that she felt cold rather than feverish was good, she thought drowsily, then quickly dozed off once more.

When she opened her eyes next, she saw the dim gray light of early morning outlining the cave entrance. She sat up carefully, trying not to wake the sleeping infant. The fire had burned down to white ashes, and Calandra lay in a huddle with even her face tucked under her blanket. Moving to the dwindling woodpile, Xena selected a few small sticks and poked around in the ashes until she found some hot embers. These she blew into a flame, which she fed until it seemed likely to go on burning without her aid.

Sitting on the bedroll again, she pulled on her boots and laced them, then wrapped her cloak around her and went out into the gray morning. There was still some rainwater lingering in small puddles along the trail, but most of the rocky surfaces were dry. A high, solid cloud cover hid the sun, but Xena judged the time to be shortly past sunrise. She crossed to the stream and knelt, splashing the icy water on her face and drinking from cupped hands. Then, as she stood up, she caught the sound of the baby crying, and hurried back into the cave. Calandra was in the process of extricating herself from her blanket.

"Sit still. I'll get him," the warrior said as she bent to scoop up the wailing child. Her nose had already told her that he needed to be changed. "Do we have any clean swaddling clothes?" she asked.

"Yeah, right here," Calandra said, indicating a pile of fabric strips. "And I also washed some out last night, but I don't know if they're dry yet." She glanced over at the bands of cloth draped over the stones in the back of the cavern.

Xena sat down next to the girl, laid the infant across her knees, and began to unwrap the soiled pieces of fabric.

"I must have really been asleep," Calandra said. "I didn't even hear you get up or anything. How's your fever?"

"I think it's all gone."

"Good. Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah, after that last nightmare, I slept really well. Did you know that it rained?"

"No," Calandra said as she slid her feet into her sandals. "Is it raining now?"

"No, it's just cloudy."

The girl picked up her cloak and the cooking pot, then headed out of the cave. She was back before Xena had finished cleaning up the baby. Kneeling by her pack, she rummaged in it for a moment and then handed Xena a small bottle. "Here's some olive oil," she said.

"What's that for?"

"It will help keep him from getting a rash." She took off her cloak again and then examined the contents of the food basket. "We have some fish left and a few dried vegetables. Shall I make us some stew?"

"Good idea. I actually feel hungry this morning," Xena said as she spread oil over her son's small bottom. He fussed and fidgeted, kicking against her stomach. "Yeah, I already know you can kick," she said, bending over to grin at him. "You've been doing it for months now."

Calandra laughed and dumped the fish and vegetables into a pot of water. "What name will you give him?" she asked as she set the pot in the coals.

Xena looked at her and the grin faded from her face. "I guess whoever adopts him will choose his name," she said.

"Then you want me to talk to a family I know about taking him?"

"No. I think I know who to give him to."

Calandra looked at her in surprise. "I didn't think you knew anybody in the village," she said.

"I don't," Xena said as she began to wrap the swaddling bands around the baby.

"Oh. Well, is it someone in your home town?"

"No."

"Who is it, then?"

Xena looked up and smiled at the girl's persistent curiosity. "I'll tell you if you promise to keep it a secret. Only your mother can know."

"Okay," Calandra said, with an eager nod.

Xena took a deep breath. "I'm going to give the baby to Kaleipus," she said.

The girl's mouth dropped open and she stared at the warrior. "To Kaleipus," she murmured. But her look of surprise rapidly changed to one of anger. "You're going to give your child to Kaleipus and then kill all the centaurs? What kind of sick joke is that?"

"Oh," Xena said quickly. "I forgot to mention that there's been a change of plans. I've decided not to kill the centaurs after all."

"You're not going to kill them?"

"No. If Kaleipus will agree to take the child, I will withdraw my army." She tucked in the end of the swaddling cloth and then cradled the baby against her breast so that he could nurse. "Do you think he'll agree?" she asked, looking hopefully at Calandra.

"Oh yes, Xena! Of course, he'll agree! Kaleipus has always wanted a son, and now, to be given the son of Borias--"

"Yes, I was hoping that for the sake of Borias he would adopt the boy," Xena said quietly.

"Well, and with you as his mother--"

Xena shook her head. "I don't want him to be like me, or even like Borias. I don't want him to be a warrior. I want him to have a peaceful life . . . a long and happy life."

"I'm sure Kaleipus will want that for him, too," Calandra said. She regarded the warrior for a moment and then bent forward to stir the stew.

Xena nodded and looked down at her son, watching the movement of his mouth as it tugged at her nipple. The sensation of the life-giving fluid moving down through her breasts was pleasant, even sensuous. She was beginning to understand why some women actually claimed to like having babies. Glancing up at Calandra, she said, "How will Kaleipus feed the baby?"

"Oh. Well, there are at least two or three women in the centaur village who are nursing right now, so probably one of them could help out. And if not, he can use goat's milk. Don't worry. The child won't go hungry."

The warrior smiled and looked at the baby again, touching his feathery blond hair with gentle fingers. "I need to get back to camp and check on my army," she said, "and then arrange a meeting with Kaleipus. Can you stay here with the baby until I get back?"

"Of course," Calandra said with a smile. "I'll stay as long as you need me. That was our deal, remember?"

"Yeah," Xena said as she held the baby against her shoulder and patted his back.

For a few minutes, neither of them spoke. Xena lowered the infant from her shoulder and let him nurse from her other breast. When she glanced up at Calandra, she found the girl watching her and smiling.

"I still can't believe it," Calandra said, shaking her head. "I can't believe you're going to give the baby to Kaleipus. How did you ever come to that decision?"

"I did a lot of thinking last night."

"Yeah, you must have. Is that when you decided not to kill the centaurs?"

"Uh-huh."

"See? I told you that you weren't such a terrible person. And the fact that you made a decision like this shows that there's good in you."

"I'm not doing this to be good," Xena said bluntly. "It's strategy, nothing else. If my enemies ever find out that I have a child, they will never think to look for him among the centaurs. He'll be safe that way, and he'll also be safe from my influence."

"But you'll come back and visit sometimes, won't you? You'll want to see how he's growing up."

"No. I'll never come back," Xena said. "It's best if he never knows who his mother is. Kaleipus can make up some kind of story. I don't care what he tells him. It would be much too dangerous for the boy if I ever came back."

Calandra regarded her sadly for a moment and then said, "Well, I'll go visit the baby often, and I'll play with him and make sure Kaleipus is raising him properly. I can be kind of like an aunt to him."

Xena looked at her and tried to smile. "Thank you," she said, her voice breaking a little. "I'd like it if you could do that."

"I'd be glad to," Calandra replied softly. Then she turned away quickly, peering into the cooking pot and then lifting it off the fire. "I think this is ready," she added.

"Okay," Xena said. She burped the baby again, then laid him down beside her and covered him with a soft fur.

They ate without talking, each of them seemingly occupied with her own thoughts. When she had finished her stew, Xena handed the bowl to Calandra and said, "Have we got anything else? I'm still hungry."

"We've got one dried apple left," the girl said, offering the fruit to the warrior, "but we've eaten everything else."

Xena took the fruit without comment.

"If you want to have another meal here," Calandra went on, "you'll have to bring back some food from your camp."

"I'll see what I can find," Xena said, "but we were running low on food when I left, and the situation may be worse now." She swallowed a bite of apple and bit off another piece. "Your village," she said, leveling her gaze at Calandra, "hasn't been supplying us with as much food as you promised you would."

"Well, that's because we ran out!" the girl retorted. "Who knew your army would be here for a month, eating up all our winter stores and leaving us with nothing!"

Xena shrugged. "An army has to eat, you know."

"Oh, and villagers don't?"

The warrior stared at the girl for a moment without answering and then got up and moved to the other side of the fire. "I'm pulling my men out first thing in the morning," she said. "We'll find another village to supply us." She knelt down and began rolling up her bedding.

"What are you doing?" asked Calandra, somewhat sullenly.

"I'm going to take as much stuff back as possible right now," Xena answered. "You can help me carry the rest of it back later."

"What are you going to do when you get there?"

"Talk to my lieutenant and find out what happened yesterday, send a messenger to the centaur camp, figure out where to go when we move out tomorrow, and do anything else that needs to be done." Xena unfolded the old piece of blanket that had formed her original bundle and found her hairbrush inside. Picking it up, she began to use it, grimacing as she yanked it through her tangled hair. "I think I'll keep this old piece of blanket to wrap the baby in later, when we take him out in the cold," she said.

"Good idea," Calandra said.

"Oh, and here's the tunic I was wearing before," she added, reaching for the crumpled garment that was lying against the cave wall. "Do you want to make swaddling bands out of it?"

"Yeah, give it here."

"You might need to wash it first."

"Okay. I'm going to wash out the other dirty swaddling clothes, too. It will give me something to do while you're gone."

With a few quick swipes, Xena finished brushing her hair and slipped the brush into her bedroll. Then she slung her sword over her back, picked up the bedroll and waterskin, stood up and looked around. "What else can I take?" she said.

"How about this basket? I'll put the bowls and spoons in it," Calandra said. She quickly wiped off the eating utensils, dropped them into the basket, then handed it to Xena. "How long will you be gone?" she asked.

"I don't know. Not too long, I hope."

"Okay. Just remember that a certain person might get hungry and I have no way to feed him."

"I'll remember," Xena said with a wry smile. Then she walked out of the cave.

* * * * *

She started down the trail at a fairly brisk pace, but was forced to slow down when she noticed herself tiring. The birthing and fever had left her weaker than she realized, and there was still a tenderness between her legs which grew more intense as she walked. Pausing to rest at the bottom of the hill, she saw that the clouds were beginning to break up. Perhaps it would be a nice day after all.

As she made her way through the woods, a light breeze blowing toward her brought a scent she knew well -- the scent of death. She stopped at the edge of the field to study the dark forms that lay in the dead grass just beyond the trees. Horses, she thought. They must have been killed in the fighting yesterday. But as she started forward again, she suddenly realized that they were not horses, but centaurs.

There were three of them -- three bodies lying in stiff, awkward positions at the end of a trail of flattened grass that led from the camp. They must have been killed in the camp itself, she surmised, and dragged out here afterwards by some of her men. Approaching the bodies, she circled them slowly, crouching down to look into the dead faces, feeling relief when she saw that none of them belonged to Kaleipus.

As she straightened up again, she noticed a blackened area of grass across the field, near the perimeter of the army camp. She walked in that direction and then stopped to stare at the dark ashes which were strewn with charred bits of wood, fabric, and bone fragments. This was where the funeral pyre had been, but it was impossible to know how many of her men's bodies had been committed to the flames. With a sigh, she turned and continued on toward the camp.

The sentry on duty nodded a greeting, and she returned his nod without stopping to speak. The atmosphere of the camp seemed subdued. Small clusters of men warmed themselves at smoky campfires, talking quietly while they ate a breakfast of bread and cheese. They paid scant attention to Xena as she walked quickly to her tent and then slipped inside.

Dropping the things she carried on the bed, she took off her cloak and threw it on top of them. Then she stood there for a few moments just looking around. Everything looked different somehow, even though it was exactly the same as she had left it. The difference was in her. She had given birth to a baby. She was a mother now -- whether she wanted to admit it or not -- and somehow that experience had changed her.

But she didn't have time to philosophize. There was too much to do. First of all, she needed something clean to wear. Her chiton smelled of perspiration, baby spit, and worse. Going to the wicker chest, she knelt down and opened it. Pulling out her leathers, she studied them for a moment and then ran a hand over her belly. Not only was her stomach a long ways from being flat again, but her breasts were swollen larger now, too. She could not fit into the leathers yet, she concluded, even if she laced them loosely. With a sigh, she laid the warrior garb aside and looked into the chest again. Taking out a soft, wool chiton, she replaced the leathers and closed the lid.

Working quickly, she stripped off the dirty garment and bathed herself as best she could, using cold water from the waterskin. She fashioned a new pad for herself from an old piece of linen, then rinsed out the one she'd been wearing and hung it up to dry. Pulling the chiton on over her head, she buckled her sword belt around her waist, and put her cloak back on. Moving to the tent flap, she peered out and saw Deros standing in front of Darphus' tent as if he were on guard duty there. The situation struck her as odd, since she had never known her lieutenant to post a guard outside his tent before. Frowning slightly, she headed in that direction.

"Commander! You're back!" Deros greeted her.

"You're very observant, Deros," Xena said dryly.

He grinned. "Well, you sure missed out on some excitement yesterday morning," he said.

"So I've heard. What happened?"

"The centaurs -- they broke out of their camp and attacked our guard. It wasn't even daylight yet and the rest of us were still asleep." He hesitated, looking away for a moment and then meeting her gaze again. "I-- I hadn't given Darphus your message yet. You said to do it at first light, but--"

She laid a hand on his arm. "It's not your fault," she said. "I should have told Darphus myself."

"I'm really sorry, Xena. I was going to tell him, but the attack came right at dawn."

"I understand. Just tell me what happened."

"Well, some of the guards ran back into the camp yelling for people to wake up, but the centaurs were right behind them, and they started attacking our men as they came out of their tents, still half asleep. I ran straight over here to tell Darphus that you were gone and that he was in charge. He was already up and had his sword strapped on, but the troops were so panicked that it took a while to get a defense organized."

"How long did the battle last?" Xena asked.

"I don't know. It seemed like a long time, but I guess it was only an hour or so. Once we got going, we did a pretty good job of driving those bastards back."

Good," Xena said, nodding, then gestured toward the tent. "Is Darphus in there?"

"Yes."

"Tell him I need to talk to him."

"Uh, well, he said he didn't want to be disturbed," Deros said uncertainly. "He was wounded yesterday and he's resting."

"Wounded?" Xena asked in surprise. "Is it serious?"

"It's nothing that's likely to kill him, I guess, but he got his face slashed up pretty bad. Estragon and I sewed him up the best we could, but we really wished you were here. I think you would have done a better job."

"I'm sure you did the best you could," Xena said. "Now, tell Darphus I need to see him. It won't take long."

Deros ducked into the tent and returned a couple of minutes later, stepping outside and holding the flap open for Xena. The dimness of the tent's interior was lessened somewhat by two candles burning near the bed where Darphus sat propped up with pillows. She crossed to the bed and stood looking down at the jagged lines of stitches that ran down his forehead and across both cheeks. The skin near the wounds was reddish and puffy, and the total effect was one of gross disfigurement.

"You don't look so good, Darphus," she commented.

"Maybe not," he said stiffly, "but I think I gave as good as I got. You should see Kaleipus."

"Kaleipus?" she said as a cold chill gripped her gut. "Is he the one who did this to you?"

Darphus nodded.

"And what did you do to him?"

"I put the bastard's eye out -- that's what I did!"

"You put his eye out," Xena repeated, keeping her voice as casual as possible. "I train you to be a top-notch warrior and the best you can do is put your opponent's eye out?"

"Well, I would have done a lot more than that if it hadn't been for all the blood running in my eyes and mouth," he said. "If I could have, I would have followed those sons of bitches right on into their camp and killed every last one of them!"

"You didn't have the authority to do that," Xena said coldly. "Your orders were to maintain the siege, and that was all."

"My orders," he said sarcastically. "My orders which were not delivered until we were already under attack."

"I'm sorry," Xena said. "I thought you would appreciate not being awakened in the middle of the night, but if I had known what was going to happen, I would have told you myself when I left the camp."

He was silent, staring at her with angry eyes out of that grotesquely swollen face. Xena met his gaze steadily for some moments, then deliberately broke from it. Glancing around, she saw a short stool nearby, moved it to the bedside, and sat down. "How many casualties?" she asked.

"We lost five men, and I'm told that a sixth is dying," he said. "I'm not sure how many wounded -- eight or ten, I think."

"And the centaurs? I saw the three bodies out in the field."

"We think there was a fourth one killed near their camp but they retrieved the body. There's no way to know for sure how many were wounded." He paused and shifted uncomfortably, then focused his gaze on her. "Xena, when are we going to end this thing? It's gone on much too long already. The men are getting restless and demoralized. We could have done it yesterday if I hadn't been wounded, and now that you're back, there's no reason to wait any longer."

"I've decided to negotiate," Xena said.

"Negotiate!" Darphus exclaimed. "Are you out of your mind? There's no reason to negotiate! We have them at our mercy. All we have to do is get in there and kill them."

"No. I've decided not to kill them. If Kaleipus will agree to my terms, we will withdraw our forces tomorrow morning."

"Your terms? What in Hades are you talking about? What could Kaleipus have that we could possibly want?" Darphus demanded.

"That's between Kaleipus and me," Xena said. "I can't discuss it with anyone else."

Darphus stared at her for several moments, then slowly shook his head. "What is going on with you, Xena?" he asked. "You've been acting very strange lately -- keeping to yourself, running off at all hours of the day and night without explanation, and now you're coming up with bizarre ideas like negotiating with the centaurs. Where were you yesterday? You should have been here. A commander should be with her troops."

"I wish I could have been here," Xena said quietly. "I would have given anything to be here fighting rather than doing what I was doing, but I had no choice. I'm sorry I can't explain it to you, but I just can't. What I can tell you is that after tonight, it will all be over with and I will be here with the army at all times."

"Come on, Xena," Darphus coaxed, "I'm your lieutenant, you can tell me. I need to know what's going on." He paused, but when she did not answer, he went on. "Are you getting cozy with the enemy, like Borias did? Maybe having an affair? Are you sleeping with Kaleipus?"

Xena laughed a short, harsh laugh. "Sleeping with Kaleipus? You've got to be kidding! I would never share my bed with one of those disgusting animals, and if you believe I would, then you don't know me as well as you think you do!"

She stood abruptly, using her full height to lend authority to her words. "I can't tell you any more than I have already," she said, "so stop asking questions. Right now I'm going to send Deros to arrange a meeting with Kaleipus. After that--"

Darphus leaned forward and gripped her arm. "Don't do this, Xena," he said in a low voice. "This is madness. If we pull back now, we'll look like cowards. The men won't respect you anymore. They'll desert, or worse. Think about what you're doing!"

"I have thought about it," she said, jerking her arm loose. "I'm the commander of this army and I've made my decision. You'll have to accept it and so will the rest of the men. I'm sorry I can't explain my reasons, but I have good ones. You'll simply have to have faith in me and in my authority."

He sank back slowly against the pillows, keeping his eyes locked on hers, but saying nothing. His breathing had become shallow and rapid, she noticed, and he was perspiring. She sat down on the stool again and spoke in a quiet voice. "I figure that if we can find a village near here to attack tomorrow or the next day, we can get a quick victory and also some supplies. It will go a long way towards cheering the men up and helping them forget about this business with the centaurs."

"If you let the men take whatever they want from the village, that would help even more," he said.

She considered this for a few moments. "I don't usually like to do that," she said, "but-- No, it's not a good idea. I don't want to set a bad precedent. The men know what the rules are and I don't want to change them on a whim. We'll give them a double ration of whatever food we take and divide the other spoils up as we always do."

Darphus shrugged. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him. "All right," he said listlessly. "Do whatever you want."

Xena picked up one of the candles and leaned forward. "Let me get a better look at those wounds," she said. With gentle fingers, she touched the hot, swollen flesh, then laid her hand on his forehead and temples. "It looks like you've got a pretty bad infection setting in," she said. "I'm going to make a poultice to see if I can draw it out. We wouldn't want your ugly mug to fall off, now would we?" She grinned at him and he offered a tired smile in return. "How's the pain?" she asked.

"I can deal with it," he said.

"Did you get any sleep last night?"

"Not much," he admitted.

"That's what I thought," she said. "Why don't you lie down now? You need to rest. I'm going to send Deros to the centaurs and then go get some herbs for the poultice. I need to be gone for a while this afternoon, but I'll put Estragon in charge, so you won't have to be bothered with anything."

Darphus nodded and began rearranging the pillows so that he could lie down.

Xena got up and went outside to speak to Deros. "I want you to go under a white flag to the centaur camp with a message for Kaleipus," she said. "Tell him I want to negotiate, and--"

"Negotiate!" said Deros in surprise. "But I thought--"

"Deros, your job is to deliver the message, not to question it," Xena broke in sternly.

"Yes, Commander," he said quickly. "I'm sorry."

"Good. Now tell Kaleipus that I will meet him at moonrise in that grove of trees just north of the centaur camp. We will allow him safe passage to and from his camp. Tell him that I will come alone and I expect him to do the same, but he may bring a weapon, if he likes."

Deros gave her a questioning look, but said nothing.

"Don't worry," she assured him. "I have reason to believe I can trust Kaleipus."

"Okay, if you say so, but I wouldn't trust any centaur as far as I could throw him."

Xena ignored this comment and went on. "When you've delivered the message, bring Kaleipus' answer back to me. I'm going to make a poultice for Darphus, so I'll probably still be here when you return, but if not, I'll be somewhere in the camp."

"I'll find you."

"Oh, and Deros, before you go, could you ask Estragon to report to me here at Darphus' tent?"

"Sure thing, Xena," Deros said. "Is that all?"

"Yes. You may go."

She watched as he left at a half-run, then turning, she headed back to her own tent to get the herbs she needed.

* * * * *

Estragon didn't like her plan to negotiate any better than Darphus had. Fuming, he paced the confines of the lieutenant's tent while she prepared the poultice, offering all the same arguments Darphus had used, plus a few of his own. Darphus, too, chimed in from time to time, although once the poultice was in place, it became more difficult for him to talk. But through it all, Xena held firm to her decision, and finally ended the discussion by saying, "I'm the commander, and this is what we're going to do."

After that, they turned their attention to selecting a village to attack. Xena and Estragon unrolled the heavy parchment map and studied it for a time, at last settling on two likely targets. Either village could be reached in a day's march, but they lay in opposite directions from their present position.

Hearing a sound, Xena looked up to see Deros at the doorway. "I'm back," he said. "Do you want me to wait outside?"

"No, come in," Xena said. Then she turned to Estragon. "Send out two scouts," she instructed, "one to each village. If they ride all night, they can be back here by morning. We'll make our decision based on their reports."

"Xena," said Deros eagerly, "do you think I could--"

She held up her hand to silence him. "I've promised Deros that he can start training as a scout," she said to Estragon and Darphus.

"Okay," said Estragon. "Do you want him to go along to one of the villages?"

"No," Xena said, then turned to Deros. "I'm sorry, but right now I need you to stay here and take care of Darphus."

"I'm all right," muttered Darphus from under the poultice.

"No, you're not all right," she retorted. "You're sick and you need someone here to prepare poultices for you. I'll show Deros how to do that, and next time we send out scouts, he can go with them."

"I'll do whatever you need me to do," Deros said.

"Fine. Now, tell me what Kaleipus said."

"He said he would meet you, but he seemed kind of suspicious, like he thought it was a trick or something."

"It's not a trick," Xena said, "but I don't blame him for being suspicious."

"How did he look?" asked Darphus. "Did I cut him up pretty bad?"

"Well, he had a bandage over one eye, if that's what you mean," Deros said. "But otherwise, he looked fine."

"That dirty, stinking bastard!" growled the lieutenant. "I sure thought I did more damage than that! It was all that blood running in my eyes -- I couldn't even see to piss!"

"Well, you gave him something to remember you by, at least," said Xena. "Losing an eye is no small matter -- it will put him at a disadvantage in battle." Then she turned to Estragon. "Get those scouts sent out right away and then go tell the guards that Kaleipus will be leaving the centaur camp just before moonrise. They are to give him free passage coming and going. I don't want anyone to detain him or even speak to him. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Xena. I'll see to it right now," said Estragon, then quickly left the tent.

With a small sigh, Xena sat down again on the stool beside Darphus' bed. She was tired and knew she should get back to the cave soon to feed the baby, but there were still some things she needed to do here first. Lifting the poultice off her lieutenant's face, she studied the wounds. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Did that willow bark I gave you help ease the pain any?"

Darphus opened his eyes. "I'm feeling a little better," he said. "I think maybe I can sleep now."

"That's good. If you can get some sleep, it will really help."

"Xena," Darphus said in a puzzled tone of voice, "there's something different about you."

She stiffened, glancing down involuntarily. She had taken her cloak off earlier. Had Darphus noticed her still-somewhat-swollen belly? Were her breasts leaking milk onto her chiton? No, she didn't see any stains. Returning her gaze to his, she said cautiously, "What do you mean?"

"Well, just that you seem -- I don't know, softer -- or something."

"Softer!" scoffed Xena. "I think your fever is making you delirious. I'm still the same blood-thirsty Warrior Princess I've always been. Aren't I, Deros?" She turned and beckoned for the messenger to come closer.

"Uh, yeah. Sure you are," he said uncertainly, as he approached.

"Of course I am! Now, come here and let me show you how to make this poultice." She gave the instructions carefully, taking care that he understood everything. By the time they finished, Darphus had fallen asleep. "I'll come back tonight to check on him," she said, "after I meet with Kaleipus."

"Okay. I'll take good care of him, Xena."

"Thanks. Which tent are the other wounded men in?"

"I'll show you," Deros said, then stepped outside with her and pointed out the tent.

Few clouds remained in the sky now, and squinting up at the sun, Xena noted that it was midday. She had hoped to be back to the cave by this time, or at least to be on her way up the trail. Well, there wasn't much left to do here, so maybe she wouldn't be delayed much longer.

She hurried toward the other tent, but even before she reached it, she heard the distinct sound of someone moaning in pain. Then, as she ducked inside, her nose was assaulted by the smell of blood, vomit, and urine. Letting the tent flap fall behind her, she stood waiting for her eyes to readjust to the dimness. A man looked up from where he sat on the ground beside one of the pallets, applying salve to a wound. "Xena? Is that you?" he asked, then rose and came toward her.

"Cretus," she said, when she saw who it was. "Are you the only one taking care of the wounded?"

"No. Quintas has been helping, too, but he's taking a break."

She nodded. "How many are here? Five?"

"Yeah, these are the ones with the worst wounds. The others have gone back to their own tents. We think all of these men will pull through -- except for Niko." He glanced back over his shoulder toward the pallet at the far end of the tent.

She followed his gaze and realized that the moaning was coming from there.

"Niko," she said, frowning. "I can't remember--"

"Young guy. Just joined up about six months ago when we were in Thebes. Kind of shy and soft-spoken, but he's a damned good archer. Or was."

"Yes, I remember him now. What kind of wound does he have?"

"He caught an arrow in the gut. Seems to be bleeding inside. Nothing we give him helps the pain much."

"All right. I'll look at him in a minute. How about the others?"

Cretus led her from pallet to pallet. She knelt and examined each man in turn, giving a few suggestions about their care, but satisfied, for the most part, with what had already been done for them.

Then, kneeling beside Niko, she examined his wound, felt his pulse, and listened to his labored breathing. He looked up at her with pain-crazed eyes, and clutched her left hand with his own. "When will Celesta come for me?" he asked.

"I don't know," Xena said softly. "You may have to wait a while."

"But she will come, won't she?"

"Yes." She gently smoothed the hair back from his forehead. He was blond, like Lyceus, and probably about the same age her brother had been when he was killed. "How old are you?" she asked. "I think you must have lied to me when you joined up."

"Fifteen," he murmured. "I told you I was eighteen."

Her throat tightened. Somewhere this boy had a mother who had cried when her son ran off to be a warrior. Xena shook her head slightly. What strange thoughts she was having today. She must be getting soft, just like Darphus said.

Niko's grip on her hand tightened. "Xena," he pleaded, "help me! Help me die! Please! I've tried to be brave, but the pain--" He drew a ragged breath and then went on. "Wouldn't you want someone to do it for you, if you were in my place?"

She looked at him and then at Cretus, who crouched on the other side of Niko's pallet.

"He's been begging us to kill him," Cretus said, "but we didn't think we should do it without orders from you."

She turned her eyes to the boy again, noting the gray pallor of his skin, the slight rattle in his breathing, and his pleading look. There was no doubt in her mind that he was dying, but it might be many hours -- even a day or two -- before he crossed over. And tomorrow morning they would be moving camp. Such a move would only cause the boy more agony.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" she asked him.

"Yes, Commander. Please," he gasped.

"You won't hate me once you get to the other side?"

"No, never! I'll bless you as the goddess of mercy."

She held out her free hand to Cretus. "Let me use your dagger," she said. He quickly pulled it from the sheath and handed it to her.

Niko was watching her. His eyes were still full of pain, but he seemed calmer now, even hopeful. "Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a warrior," he said, speaking with some effort. "I'm so glad I got to be in your army, Xena. You're the best. I only wish--" He stopped as his face twisted with pain.

"You only wish what?" Xena asked gently.

"I only wish I had killed more centaurs for you," he said. "I only got one yesterday before--" He gestured vaguely toward his wound.

"You killed one of those centaurs yesterday?" Xena asked.

He nodded.

"You're a fine warrior, Niko," she said quietly. "You've served me well."

He smiled weakly. "Go ahead and do it," he whispered. "I'm not afraid."

She squeezed his hand and kept it firmly clasped in her own. Then, taking a deep breath to steady herself, she gripped the dagger with her other hand, positioned the blade over his heart and, in one quick movement, thrust it in.

Continue to Part 6 (the conclusion)

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