by Eva Allen


BE ADVISED: This story includes the depiction of sex between two
consenting adult women. If this offends you, please find something else
to read!

Constructive criticism and unadulterated praise are always welcome!
Write to me at


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

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


"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

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

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

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

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

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


"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

* * *

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

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

"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?"


"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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

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

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...

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