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An hour later, Xena sat down to rest halfway up the trail to the
cave. She felt exhausted, her legs were shaky, and she carried the image
of Niko's face with her like a heavy burden she could not put down. This
had not been her first mercy killing -- far from it -- but it had
affected her more than most. Perhaps it was the boy's youth, or the fact
that he reminded her of Lyceus. One thing was certain -- she was more
determined than ever that her own son not grow up to be a warrior.
With a sigh, Xena rose and started up the trail again. A few more
minutes of steady climbing brought her to the cave, where Calandra sat
in the sun near the entrance doing needlework of some sort.
"Hi," the girl said, smiling a greeting to the warrior.
"Hi," Xena responded dully, and tossed her a small packet
she'd been carrying. "Bread and cheese," she said. "It's
all I could get."
"That's fine," Calandra said. "Bread and cheese are
Xena turned and crossed to the stream. Kneeling beside it, she
splashed cold water on her face and then took a long drink. As she
clambered to her feet, she dried her face and hands on the rough wool of
"Are you all right, Xena? Did your fever come back?"
"No, I'm just tired. Everything took much longer than I thought
"Are you going to meet with Kaleipus?"
"Yes. At moonrise tonight," Xena said, moving back toward
the cave. "Where's the baby? Did he get hungry?"
"He's inside. He woke up a while ago and just cried and cried. I
tried letting him suck on my fingers and then on the corner of a wet
rag, but nothing worked. He must have cried for an hour before he
finally wore himself out and went back to sleep."
Xena pressed her lips together. "I'm sorry. I wanted to get back
sooner, but I just couldn't. I'll go get him."
It was dark in the cave. The fire had burned almost all the way down,
but sunlight from the entrance helped her find her way. She could just
make out the small bed of furs where the infant lay sleeping on his
stomach, his thumb in his mouth. She smiled at the sight and crouched
down beside him. When she laid a hand on his back, he sighed a little,
but did not waken. "Did you think your mom forgot about you?"
she asked softly. "Well, I didn't. I thought about you the whole
time I was gone."
As soon as she picked him up, he began to wail loudly. She stood up,
making soothing sounds and jiggling him gently in her arms. Then she
opened her cloak and pulled down her chiton. He began to nurse
immediately and vigorously, the strength of his sucking causing her to
flinch a little. "Hey, take it easy," she told him.
"There's plenty of milk there. I saved it all for you."
He looked at her gravely and she smiled, touching his cheek softly.
Then, covering him with her cloak, she made her way back outside and sat
down in the sun next to Calandra.
"It's nice out here, isn't it?" the girl said, holding a
needle up in the sunlight and poking thread through its eye.
Calandra looked at her, then at the baby, smiling as she watched him
nurse. "So what did you find out?" she asked, after a few
moments of silence. "About the battle and everything."
"Well, it was pretty much like your mother said. The centaurs
attacked around dawn while most of my men were still asleep. But once
everybody got awake and organized, we managed to drive them back
"Did anyone get killed?"
"Four centaurs. Five of my men. No, six," she amended. Xena
looked over at Calandra, but the girl seemed preoccupied with the small,
even stitches she was making. "Kaleipus was wounded, by the
way," Xena said.
Calandra's head jerked up. "Wounded? Is it bad?"
"Not too bad. Apparently, he lost an eye. He fought my
lieutenant, Darphus. I'd say Darphus got the worst of it, though. His
face was all sliced up and the wounds were getting infected, so I had to
make a poultice for him. That's one reason why it took me so long."
She laid a hand on the baby's stomach and found that it was growing
tight with air. But when she pulled him away from her nipple, he let out
a howl of protest. "You're eating too fast," she told him as
she held him against her shoulder and patted his back.
"Kaleipus with only one eye," mused Calandra. "It's
hard to imagine. I guess he'll have to wear a patch over it or
"Yes, I guess so." Xena lowered the child to her breast
again and he happily resumed suckling. Fifteen years ago, a mother in
Thebes had nursed her infant son like this, and today Xena had put a
dagger through that boy's heart. She closed her eyes and bit her lip.
She couldn't go on thinking like this. It was no good, either for her or
her army. But maybe, next time they were near Thebes, she would try to
send word to Niko's mother. The woman at least had a right to know that
her son would not be coming home again.
"Xena, are you sure you're all right?" asked Calandra.
"You seem so . . . sad . . . or something."
"Yeah. I'm fine," Xena said, glancing at the girl and then
away again. "I was just thinking about--"
"Nothing. You wouldn't understand."
"I might. You never know until you try."
Xena regarded her for a few moments in silence. The dark eyes were
full of curiosity, but also revealed a great depth of sympathy. The
warrior turned her gaze away and stared at the stream. "I had to
kill one of my soldiers today," she said in a flat tone of voice.
"He was young -- only fifteen. If I had known he was that young, I
would never have let him join my army." She closed her eyes for a
moment, then opened them and went on. "He was badly wounded -- in a
lot of pain. I knew he would die anyway, and he begged me to kill him,
but--" She drew in a shaky breath and looked down at the baby, then
pulled him a little closer to her as she realized that the woman in
Thebes was not the only mother who would lose her son this day.
Calandra reached out to touch the warrior's shoulder. "Xena,
anyone would feel sad about something like that. It's a terrible thing
to have to do."
"I can't afford the luxury of feeling sad about every soldier
who dies," the warrior said grimly. "Darphus has already
accused me of getting soft. If all the men start thinking like that,
I'll soon be without an army." "Would that be so terrible?
Losing your army? Maybe you could start a different kind of life. You
could just keep the baby and--"
"No," Xena said bluntly. "I'm a warrior. I command an
army. That's my life and there's no place in that life for a child. I
chose to follow the sword, and I've gone much too far down that path to
be able to turn back now."
Calandra stared at her in silence for several moments. Her sewing lay
forgotten in her lap. "What did your men say about the baby?"
she asked finally. "Were they surprised that you're giving him to
"They don't know about the baby."
"You didn't tell any of them? But they knew you were pregnant,
"You kept your pregnancy a secret from your entire army?"
the girl asked in surprise.
"I hope so," Xena said fervently.
"But don't you have any friends there? Don't you trust your own
"Yes, I trust them -- for the moment, anyway. But I've learned
you can't really trust anyone completely. One minute people say they
care and the next minute they betray you." She shifted the baby to
her shoulder again. "That's why it's not safe for this child to
stay with me," she went on. "He's better off with the
centaurs. They'll protect him if he's in danger, and they're tough
Calandra regarded Xena without speaking for a few moments, then
looked down at her needlework and slowly picked it up.
"What are you sewing?" Xena asked.
"It's a chiton for my mother. I want it to be a surprise, but
it's hard to find a time to work on it when she's not around."
"You're a good daughter," Xena said as she cradled the baby
at her breast again.
"You know," said Calandra, "after the baby . . . stops
nursing . . . you'll still be producing milk for several days. Your
breasts could get pretty sore."
"Is there anything I can do about it?"
"You can try squeezing out some of the milk. And sometimes hot
Xena nodded. The baby didn't seem to want to eat any more just then,
so she pulled her chiton back up. "I think he's finished, and I
need to get some sleep," she said.
"I'll take him," Calandra said, holding out her arms.
Xena handed him over and stood up. "Wake me up about an hour
before sunset," she said. Then she turned and went into the cave.
* * * * *
She nursed the baby again while they ate the bread and cheese, then
they doused the fire and gathered up the remaining gear. Pulling out a
small leather purse, Xena selected some coins and handed them to
Calandra. "I guess I'd better pay you, while I'm thinking about
it," she said.
The girl looked at the coins, frowning as she counted them. "Xena,"
she said, "this is quite a bit more than we agreed on."
"I know, but you earned it. I want you to have it," the
"No, really, I can't accept this much."
"Yes, you will accept it," Xena said firmly, "because
if you don't, I'll be insulted and you know what happens when I get
insulted," she finished with a grin.
Calandra grinned back at her. "Well, when you put it that
way--" she said. "Thanks!"
Xena gave a little wave of dismissal and stooped to tie up the roll
of furs and blankets. "You carry this," she said, handing the
bundle to Calandra, "and if you can take the cooking pot, too, I'll
carry your pack and the baby."
"Okay," the girl said, nodding.
The warrior crouched down again to tuck the old blanket around the
infant, then picked him up and slung Calandra's pack over her shoulder.
"Did we get everything?" she asked as she glanced around.
"All right, then, let's go."
They picked their way carefully down the stony trail. The sun,
glowing large and orange in the western sky, cast a warm glow that
seemed to contradict the growing chill in the air. It was darker among
the trees at the bottom of the hill, but there was still enough light so
that they could easily find their way. Xena stopped when they came to a
low stone ledge, just out of sight of the field. "Put the pot and
bedding under there," she told Calandra. "I can come back and
get them after I meet with Kaleipus. There are some centaur bodies in
the field, and I don't think you'll want to see them."
"You're right," Calandra said, grimacing, and then stooped
down to stow the bedroll and pot under the ledge. When she straightened
up, Xena handed her the pack. "You can get to the village by just
going west through the trees here," she said.
The girl was silent for a moment, then took hold of the warrior's
arm. "Xena," she said, "let me go with you to meet with
Kaleipus. If he sees me there, he'll be more at ease and in case he has
any doubts about taking the baby--"
"No, Calandra," Xena broke in. "This isn't a social
visit -- it's a council of war. It might not be safe. I can't let you
The girl withdrew her hand and looked away, but not before Xena saw
the disappointment in her eyes.
"Assuming everything goes well, I'll be pulling my army out
tomorrow morning," Xena said in a gentler tone of voice. "Once
we're gone, I'd like it if you could visit Kaleipus and check on the
baby. I don't know how much I'll have a chance to tell him tonight, but
he'll probably have some questions. You can tell him what you
"Okay," Calandra said, "I'll do that."
"Thanks," Xena said softly. "Thanks for everything.
You've done more for me than you know."
The girl smiled and then reached out to open the blanket and peek at
the baby. He was awake, and seemed to regard his two companions with
quiet curiosity. Calandra bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
"Goodbye, Little Man," she said. "I'll come see you and
your new daddy tomorrow." Then, with another smile, she added,
"Goodbye, Xena. May the gods go with you." And turning
quickly, she walked away through the trees.
Xena stood for a moment watching her go and then turned her own steps
in the opposite direction. Skirting the field under cover of the trees,
she made her way slowly around to the grove north of the centaur camp.
By the time she reached her destination, the sun had dipped below the
horizon, and the sky had darkened to a deep shade of blue. It would
still be another hour or so until the moon rose, Xena estimated.
There was a clearing in the center of the grove and this was where
she planned to meet Kaleipus. For now, though, she chose to stay out of
sight, seating herself on a log where the trees cast ever-deepening
shadows. The baby began to whimper, and opening the blanket, Xena
offered him a nipple. "Last chance for Mom's milk," she said
as he began to nurse. "I want you all fed and dry and sound asleep
when Kaleipus gets here."
What kind of mother would do what she was about to do, she wondered
grimly. What kind of mother would walk away from her son, never to come
back again, never even to know what kind of person he had grown up to
be? How could she be contemplating doing such a thing? The thought of it
suddenly made her feel sick, and the gorge rose in her throat. Taking a
deep breath, she forced it resolutely down again.
She listened to the baby's soft sucking sounds for a time, then
touched his head with tender fingers. "If it were up to me,"
she told him, "I would name you Lyceus. I would want you to grow up
like my brother, brave and loving and full of laughter. But I wouldn't
want you to die young, like he did. No, I want you to die of old age,
quietly, in your bed, with your children and grandchildren around
She sighed as she lifted him to let the air escape from his stomach,
then let him nurse again. "I know you will never understand why
your mother left you, but it was the only thing I could do. Please
believe me," she finished in a choked voice. "And please try
to forgive me." Then, lifting one of his hands to her mouth, she
kissed the tiny fingers that curled around her own.
This was crazy, she thought. She couldn't let herself get morbidly
sentimental about this thing. She had to think about something else.
Let's see. What did she need to do when she got finished here? Go back
and pick up the bedding and cooking pot, pull her guards off the centaur
village, give orders to prepare to move camp, and check on Darphus and
the other wounded men. After that, she needed to make sure her own
belongings were packed so that the aides could take down her tent in the
morning, and hopefully she could also get some sleep. It was going to be
a long, tiring night.
When the baby was finished nursing, she changed his swaddling
clothes, stuffing the soiled ones under the log. The rest of the clean
bands had been tucked into the blanket with him for Kaleipus to use.
Then, pacing slowly back and forth beside the log, she sang softly to
her son until she was sure he was asleep.
The moon's big, yellow disk was just clearing the tops of the trees
to the east when Xena heard a noise in the clearing. Peering out through
the branches, she saw Kaleipus move cautiously into the open, his sword
held at the ready. He wore a bloody bandage over his left eye, and he
turned his head somewhat nervously in that direction, as he tried to
compensate for his new blindness.
Hiding the baby under her cloak, Xena stepped out of the trees and
walked toward the centaur. She had come within two paces of him when he
"Stop right there," he said in a commanding tone. "You
won't get the Ixion stone. All of us are willing to die to keep you from
that power. And Borias, the man who betrayed Xena to become the greatest
friend of the centaurs, told us everything. He may have died at your
command," Kaleipus went on, pointing a finger at her, "but he
will live forever in our legends."
The Ixion stone. So that was what Kaleipus thought this meeting was
about. Strange, but since making her decision the night before, Xena had
almost forgotten about the stone.
"I'm willing to withdraw my army," she said bluntly.
The centaur laughed and then said in a cynical tone, "Xena,
Destroyer of Nations, isn't known to bargain."
She did not answer immediately, but glanced down, opening her cloak
to reveal the sleeping baby. Kaleipus was surprised. She could see it in
his face, although he tried to hide it. "Take this child," she
said, moving closer. "He's my son and the son of Borias. If he
stays with me, he'll become a target for all those who hate me, and
he'll learn things a child should never know." She paused, waiting
for her words to take effect, hoping Kaleipus would understand the
urgency of her pleas. "He'll become like me," she finished
Kaleipus looked at her as if he were somehow trying to see through to
her soul, then he gazed down at the child in wonder. After a moment, he
reached out and took the baby gently from her arms and cradled him
against his chest. "The son of Borias will be raised as my
own," he said quietly.
She stared at him for a long moment. There was so much more to say,
and yet there was nothing more to say. Her body trembled and she did not
trust herself to speak again. She had given away her child, and the
thought of it brought the sick feeling on her again, like a cold hand
clamped around her gut. Turning, she walked quickly away, trying not to
stumble, longing only for the shadows of the trees to hide her. And when
she reached them, when she knew she was out of sight, she dropped to her
knees, leaned over, and began to vomit.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The idea for the ending of this story was suggested to
me by Lucy Lawless' comments in Robert Weisbrot's OFFICIAL GUIDE TO THE
XENAVERSE regarding the "Orphan of War" episode: "I got
the idea she should go off to throw up [after giving away her child]. I
had the idea she was going to go there and just vomit, she's so sick at
what she just did. So if you ever see it again you know that's what
she's going to do!"
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