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Warned that the man was coming, the woman considered fleeing. But where would she go? Still weakened by a difficult childbirth, with a small child and the babe to carry, how could she travel alone? No one would help or hide them. Fear of the man's wrath was too great. She would have to try another plan.
She awakened the boy, dressed him, and set him in a chair near the fire. When he protested sleepily, she said, "Stay here, sweet. Show him this home has a son." Using the energy she had left, she cooked a thick stew and put out wine, cheese, and bread. If she could but make the man pause and think of what they had. If she could fill his belly and soothe him as she had on other nights. . . .Her sore body cringed at the thought, but she would lay with him in love if that would advance her purpose.
The baby made a small sound, and she went to hold it. Uncovering a breast, she let it nurse, the sweet tugs pulling also at her heart. "He'll not take you, love. He--or I--will die first." She stroked the child's thatch of dark hair before laying it down. A burst of cold night air accompanied the loud sound of the door being forced open. The stout prop she had put against it snapped, and the man's body filled the doorway. Bearded and dark-visaged, muddy from travel, he was dressed as if for war.
His eyes scanned the room, taking in the boy's presence and dismissing it, and then settling on the cradle. "No!" At the strangled sound, he stared at the woman. She forced into her voice a calm she did not feel. "Sit by the fire and hold your son. Rest while I bring you a meal." Ignoring her words, he strode across the room and looked down on her precious one. When he looked up, his eyes held a question. "No!" she said again and tried to put her body between him and this new life. With no effort, he roughly shoved her, and she fell, stunned, near the fireplace. Reaching into the cradle, he grasped the swaddling wraps and exposed the child. He shook his head, in anger or in sorrow. Lifting child and blanket, he glanced once more at the woman and her son, then was out the door.
As he galloped away on his black warhorse, the woman's keening followed him. Let her scream her grief, he thought. That's why women, unlike men, get over it.
Carrying the bundle in his right arm, the one that often wielded a sword, he urged his mount to ever greater speed until they reached the base of a certain mountain. Sliding from his tall horse, he walked to a large rock that was flat on the top like an altar. There he placed the infant. Almostly tenderly, he uncovered its body again. As he looked at this babe for the last time as a living child, he spoke to it. "You will not suffer. You will just go to sleep. I would rather leave you with your mother to grow beautiful like her, to love and comfort a man, as she has loved and comforted me. But not long ago I made a promise to an unforgiving god. It was on a battlefield, and I was surrounded. Knowing that I was about to die, I called on the god of war. Ares, I said, to save my life, I need the strength of ten men. If you grant me what I need, my next living child I will dedicate to your service. The enemy attacked, and man after man fell before my sword. When the battle was done, I had to climb over their corpses to return to my own men."
He ran one rough finger along the child's soft cheek. "There's no fault in you, child. It's not your fault that you were born a girl. The fault is mine for making such a promise to save my own life. You must die before you've lived, but I will dedicate you to Artemis, goddess of the hunt. May she take your spirit and let it travel with her virgin band."
With those words, he went a short distance away to sit and ponder all the distant stars as he had done in many a camp. He would not leave this small form to be torn apart by animals. He would wait, keeping watch until the cool night air had done its work.
Toward dawn, having long before heard strong cries weakening to whimpers and then to silence, the man rose and returned to the rock. The child appeared white and cold, a marble statue of a perfect babe. He studied the narrow hands, long fingers that could have learned to hold a sword, the narrow torso, and the straight legs that would never walk or run. He would bury the child here, on this mountain, covering the body with rocks, its own stone tomb. Then the baby whimpered. The man's heart leaped, then hardened. He reached for the thin dagger he kept beside his sword. Then the child's eyes opened, and he looked into an azure gaze, the clear blue eyes of his own mother.
Returning the dagger to its sheath, the man drew his sword. He lifted the child with one large hand and the sword with the other. "Ares," he shouted. "I keep my promise. This, my living child, I dedicate to you. I give to her the strength that you have granted me, and I will fight my future battles as an ordinary man. She will be a warrior such as the world has never known. In honor of the battlefield where I made my promise, her name will be Xena."
Cradling this child, dedicated by him to two jealous gods, the man galloped his dark horse home.
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