"Never mind... I'll explain later." He took off through the bushes and yelled back over his shoulder, "Will you start a fire?"
Xena slid from her mount and shook her head. She was beginning to think Caeneus was the most fascinating and mysterious man she'd ever met... although, given the men she'd known, that wasn't saying much. As she loosened Clio's saddle straps, she replayed the afternoon in her mind. When they left the village, she had expected him to be subdued... perhaps still fuming over what happened with Ladon. Instead, he made valiant attempts to throw off his anger. He lapsed into a vein of grim, daft humor and made jokes about himself, the ocean, and the rain. Xena had even laughed. She hadn't laughed since... she didn't know when. Indeed, she almost forgotten how to laugh.
Then, he'd asked that she tell of her adventures on the seas. She told him a few stories, including one when her ship suffered severe damage from a series of colossal tidal waves. He swore at Poseidon colorfully and said he wished he could pull a plug on the ocean floor, watch the putrid salt water drain away, only to be replaced with sweet rain water. And, had he actually said he liked that rain made his hair feel softer?!
With an unexpected change of subject, he'd given her goosebumps as he admitted how ardently he'd wanted to murder Ladon. He didn't seem shocked when she told him she wished he had. When Xena asked why he'd not killed Ladon, Caeneus said, 'Because I don't want to become like those I fight, any more than I already have.' Before she could analyze this statement, he'd asked about her plans for her army. He'd listened attentively as she talked about conquest, building an army to stand against emperors and kings, and wiping worthless louts like Ladon off the face of the earth.
Then, when the downpour stopped, he'd mentioned something about the smell of rain! Xena would have ridiculed any other man who spewed such nonsense. She had always found romantic men supremely boring and never enjoyed their bumbling attempts at whimsical foreplay. It did absolutely nothing for her. She could barely tolerate the brutes at all. When she did choose to be with a man, it was generally because she was horny, plain and simple. And, she didn't need or desire a lot of fanciful mush to get where she wanted to go. Usually, she ended up satisfying herself anyway... More often than not, they spilled all over her and passed out before she was anywhere near orgasm. As for her emotional needs, she liked to think she didn't have any. She'd never felt compelled to connect with a man's soul - whatever that meant.
For some reason, however, she found Caeneus's unique combination of sensitivity and fire undeniably charming. This man was capable of profound insight AND unbridled, beastly passion. And, nothing he did was apparently aimed at getting her onto a pallet. This was new to her.
She sighed. When would she figure this man out? He was making her feel things she hadn't felt since... she couldn't remember. For the first time, she longed to get inside a man's head... to hear more about how he felt... how he perceived the world. She was actually beginning to appreciate this man's efforts to be tender... although, with Caeneus, she was certain it was no conscious attempt on his part. This was the first time she wanted to linger and look into a man's eyes... She debated whether to ward off this inclination or go with it.
Xena hardly had time to start the fire when Caeneus was already back with a string of perch. He was dripping wet from head to toe. She gave him an amused look. "You said you had to SEE the fish, not BECOME one of them."
"Become a fish? Hmm... There are worse things I could do." Caeneus chuckled. "Actually, I needed to wash all that mud off my clothes." He dropped the fish next to where she stooped and set down the pot which was full of water. "Now... I guess I need to snare a rabbit for you, don't I?"
The warrior looked up to see his twinkling eyes teasing her. "Don't bother... I can eat fish... I'll live."
"Yeah... You survived that bite you took this morning."
Xena fussed with the logs in the fire. After a few moments, she pursed her lips and looked back up at him. "You saw that, huh?"
"Yep. I saw it." Caeneus winked, then glanced at the horses and back down at her. "Would you like to take the horses to drink?"
Xena could tell by the sarcasm in his voice that he meant she was safe to take a bath now if she wanted. She stood up and grinned sheepishly. "I should've taken you up on your offer this morning."
"No problem." His eyes shined. "I'll clean the fish, and maybe they'll be ready to eat by the time you get back."
Xena nodded and collected the horses' reins. As she stepped into the woods, she thought she heard him begin to whistle a tune she hadn't thought of since she was a girl.
"Would you rather have fish or game for breakfast?" Caeneus asked as he stowed the left-over bread and fruit. He and Xena had finished eating and were preparing to retire.
Xena pretended to considered her answer as she divested herself of her armor. "Fish," she finally said impassively while she spread her blanket next to the fire. Though she was reluctant to show it, she had absolutely enjoyed the perch Caeneus prepared for dinner. She sat down on her blanket and arched an eyebrow. "And, I want you to show me why it's so important to SEE them in order to catch them."
"Hmm. Okay... but, you've got to get up pretty early..."
"Don't you worry about me," Xena interrupted.
Caeneus put his arms around a pile of wood which Xena had stacked at the edge of the clearing. He laid it within reach of his blanket. Instead of sitting, he walked over and kneeled behind Xena.
In an instant, the warrior was on her feet and poised in a defensive position. "What do you think you're doing?!"
Startled eyes frowned back at her quizzically. "I was going to massage your shoulders," he said without any flirtatious connotation in his voice. "You've been rubbing them all evening. I figured they were tight from riding in the rain." He sighed heavily. "Never mind, Xena. Sorry." He stood, moved to sit down on his own blanket, and began to unbuckle his boots. As if nothing unusual had happened, he asked, "What other foods do you like?... besides perch and trout?" He grinned warmly at her.
Xena's lips parted and she shook her head at herself. How could she have suspected he would harm her? She plopped down again and rattled off a list of her favorite foods. They both stared into the fire for a long while.
"Do you mind if we take a detour tomorrow?"
"Yeah. In Thysalus, there is a family... As a child, I was close to them. I'd like to stop and see how they're doing. We don't have to stay long."
"Fine." Xena cocked her left eyebrow. "Why have you been so long away from Thessaly?"
"I... couldn't go back to the life I lived there. Things change, you know?"
"Yeah, I do." Xena could tell she struck a sore subject.
He glanced at her and smiled. "Good night." He lay down and closed his eyes.
Xena reclined on her elbows and gazed at his face. She recalled her inability to find a word to describe him the night before. The many kind things he'd said to her throughout the day flooded her mind as she observed again how peaceful and fearless he looked. Why was he being so good to her?... to all the women he encountered? Why did he utterly erupt when he saw a woman mistreated? How was it possible that he could be so fierce and yet so benevolent? Xena had concluded that tenderness and humanity were lost when one became a warrior. Caeneus was proving her wrong. And, he was awakening those proclivities within her.
The fitting word to characterize him still eluded her. He reminded her of... what?... whom? 'What IS it about you?' she asked silently. As if he'd heard the question, he opened his eyes and moved them to meet hers. They sparkled and seemed to say something to her. Before she could read what, he shut them again. Xena shook her head and sighed. Some time later, she closed her eyes too.
Wearing only her shift, Xena leaned on a tree trunk in the shadows and watched Caeneus swim in the stream. He'd managed to wake before she did again and had already been in the water for gods knew how long. She didn't intend to spy on him, but she was mesmerized by his graceful, powerful movement through the water. He swam fast and without much splashing.
When he reached the widest, deepest part of the stream, directly in front of her, he stopped and stood. The water came up to his chest. She was surprised to see him lean his head back and dip it, so that the water washed his hair from his face. He ran his hands over his head in a self-indulgent manner which Xena found extremely sexy. This was the first time she'd seen him without his shirt. His muscles were toned and sleek. There were no scars on his skin. Most male warriors boasted about their battle scars. Caeneus had none that she could see from this distance. He also had very little body hair. None on his chest and relatively little under his arms. Xena decided she liked this look... smooth skin was much more appealing than the rugs of scratchy hair that covered some men.
Just as she was about to make herself known, she saw Caeneus become rooted in place, completely unmoving. She knew by now he did this when he was poised for action. Looking around, she listened but didn't sense any danger. She watched him intently. He held one hand above the water as if he were ready to grab at something. He seemed to be looking below him but his head wasn't bowed. "Yeah right," Xena jeered under her breath as she realized what he might be going to do. At the same moment, Caeneus plunged his hand into the water and scooped it back out. On his finger, he had hooked a large trout. Xena was flabbergasted.
"THAT'S why it helps to SEE the fish!" he yelled and tossed the fish onto the bank. It landed at Xena's feet.
She stepped out from the trees. "How long have you known I was here?" He had embarrassed her yet again.
"Since I heard your stomach growl."
Xena curved an eyebrow. "So, are you going to show me... that thing you do? What do you call it?"
"Fishing," he said with a wry grin.
Xena rolled her eyes.
"Sure, come on... Get in here, and I'll show you."
Xena looked down at her shift, then arched her eyebrow at him again.
He lifted a reassuring hand. "I'll turn around... and I'll stay on this side of the stream. Okay?"
"Agreed." Xena waited for him to rotate in the water. Normally, she was not modest, but, for some reason, she felt shy with Caeneus. She stripped off her shift and walked in far enough so her breasts were covered. "All right."
Caeneus spun around and smiled. "Good morning!... and welcome to Lord Caeneus's advanced fishing class!"
Xena rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Lord??"
"Please don't interrupt, little lady."
The warrior shot him a look.
"Okay, this morning we start with a warm up... raise that right arm out of the water and swivel it around a few times. Loosen it up." Caeneus frowned when Xena didn't obey. "Come on, missy, you're paying for this lesson... You'd might as well get the most out of it."
Xena swung her arm in the air unenthusiastically. "Paying for it??"
"You're cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me."
"Uh-huh." Xena was starting to enjoy this banter.
"Okay, now, the first..." Caeneus paused. "You can stop warming up now, Xena." He grinned and went on. "Now, the first thing you must remember is to position yourself so that the sun is in front of you... Can't see the fish if they're swimming in your shadow." Caeneus twirled his finger impatiently toward Xena, indicating that she should turn.
"Very good. Okay, next... Raise your arm directly above the water. You want to strike straight down... fish won't know what hit em. ...I guess that goes without saying in your case." He winked at her and waited while she lifted her arm. "Now, when you grab the fish, aim for the midsection in a scooping motion toward the head. If your grip doesn't hold, chances are you'll snag 'em by the gills anyway. Understand?"
Caeneus's voice became serious. "All right... the next tip is the most important. You must, I repeat, you must stand absolutely still. Make like a rock... like a sculpture in a fountain, you see."
"I'm a sculpture? What sculpture?" The warrior's voice was sarcastic, but her eyes glittered in the morning sun.
Caeneus thought for a moment. "Yourself, of course. Once you've made history, they'll erect statues of you in every fountain from here to Ionia."
"In the fountains?!" Xena scowled. "How about in the temples?!... Or, on pedestals in the city squares!"
"Hmm... well, maybe... But, I think a fountain is more appropriate for a statue of the world's finest fisherman... er... woman."
Xena broke her position. "Ha ha," she said flatly.
"Okay, let's continue... get your arm back up there. Good. As I was saying, stand completely still. Now, look into the water in front of you. Pretty soon some curious fish will start nosin' around down there."
Xena gave him a look of fake apprehension.
Caeneus waved her off. "Don't worry, they won't bite. Well... maybe a little nibble."
The warrior's eye became round, and she started to speak.
"Nuh-uh! Don't say a word. You must be very quiet. Do you see one yet?"
"Okay, don't forget... straight down and scoop toward the head!"
Xena stole a quick glance at him, then dove her fingers into the water. Her hand came up with a thrashing perch. She threw it onto the bank and turned to Caeneus with a satisfied grin.
He nodded proudly. "I'm such a good teacher!"
Xena scoffed at him and reassumed her position over the water.
The second fish Xena caught was very large. She held it up for Caeneus to see. "Look at this!" She didn't get a response. Caeneus was no where to be seen. She frowned and whirled around, searching for him. Suddenly, he emerged not far from her. She stepped back.
He smiled and averted his eyes. "I'm getting out. I'm starting to shrivel." He glanced at her as he stepped toward the bank. "Now, YOU turn around."
Nonplused, Xena complied. 'A man who doesn't take liberty to bare his balls?!'
Xena and Caeneus led their horses along the road to Thysalus. They'd been conversing about the Centaurs. Xena gathered that Caeneus respected them as a noble people, whose only downfall was their penchant for excessive drinking. Caeneus had interrupted their conversation when they came upon a small shrine to the goddess Artemis. Xena had been mystified when Caeneus insisted on stopping to pay homage. Now, as they neared the town, Caeneus slowed his pace considerably.
"You sure this is what you really want to do?" Xena asked.
"Yeah. It's just that I haven't been here in such a long time."
Caeneus guided her to a farm at the east end of the village. He stopped and leaned on the stone wall which bordered the property. Xena watched his eyes cross the expanse of the farm. He seemed to take in every detail. She noticed his eyes became misty.
As Xena waited, she remembered the last time she'd visited Amphipolis, about six moons ago. She'd done much like Caeneus was doing... stood and watched... except she'd waited until nightfall. The villagers would've tried to stone her if she'd been recognized. Though she still protected Amphipolis, Xena had toughened her heart against its inhabitants. They had denounced and ostracized her. She'd gone then to make sure her mother was safe, nothing more. Under the cloak of darkness, she snuck near her mother's tavern. She'd waited patiently until at last her mother stepped out the back door to tend to her chickens. As she'd listened to her mother softly cooing to the hens, Xena felt her heart begin to melt. The sound brought torturous memories... She was taken back to a time she and Lyceus were children and had both been sick. Her mother had sat between their pallets and, in a very low voice, told them stories to take their minds off their discomfort.
When her mother disappeared inside the tavern again, Xena slammed the door on the memories and sprinted from her mother's tavern. With each step she'd ran, she hardened her heart. Over the years, she'd consciously extinguished all recollection of love or pleasure. Firstly, those memories were too painful... With the exception of her mother, everyone she'd ever loved had been taken from her or disappeared from her life. Secondly, those memories made her vulnerable. So, she'd swept them all out of her head. A few stubborn ones refused to be dislodged. Those, she'd buried so deeply she forgot even what they were.
Caeneus started when the door of the hut opened and a middle-aged couple stepped out. Standing up straight, Caeneus gripped the wall and gawked at the people. His eyes followed them as they strolled down the lane. When they turned onto the road toward him, Caeneus backed up a step into Xena.
He continued to stare at the man and woman as they ambled closer. They both said 'hello' when they came near. Xena grunted a greeting in return, but Caeneus remained silent.
When they'd passed, Caeneus hung his head and swallowed hard. He walked a few paces away and looked at the sky. Xena knew he was composing himself... and she thought she knew why. She waited for him to return to her.
"This was your home, wasn't it?" she asked.
He looked at the farm again. "Yeah."
"And those people?"
"Your parents?!" Xena hadn't expected that response. "Caeneus, they looked at you like they didn't know you. I thought you said you were here just four winters ago?"
"I was. They didn't recognize me then either."
"What are you saying, Caeneus?"
"It's too much to go into right now, Xena." He placed his hand on her arm. "Thank you for coming here with me. I just wanted to see that they're well... and happy. We can get back on the road."
Caeneus and Xena had been walking for some time before either of them spoke. Caeneus came to a halt and touched the warrior's hand.
"Xena, I want to explain..."
Xena looked directly into his eyes and waited for him to go on.
His eyes darted back and forth between hers. "Xena... I was glad when we ran into you at Calydon."
The warrior narrowed her eyes speculatively.
"You see... I know all about you," he said. "I know about your family... about Cortese's attack on your home, and I know how you protected Amphipolis." His eyes bore into hers. "I also understand why you do what you do now."
"What do you mean? How do you know?"
"Well... for starters... your reputation is growing. People talk. When I first heard about a woman warrior who was forming a massive army, I was curious. I asked questions... found out it was you."
"And, you think you understand me?" Xena asked defensively.
"I recognize in you that which is within me." Caeneus reached to touch her arm, but she flinched. He continued. "I mean... I understand who you are... how you feel. And, I know why you are driven to wipe your army across Greece... to defeat those who oppose you... to seek vengeance."
Xena squinted again and flared her nostrils. Just talking about revenge made her heart beat faster.
"I realize... better than you know. From the moment I met you... I was convinced we're alike... and I know we're now haunted by the same thing."
"Revenge?" Xena breathed.
"Yes... among other things."
"Why do you seek revenge, Caeneus?" Xena was still confounded.
"I DON'T seek it anymore! ...And, I only take it when I'm compelled to! There's a BIG difference! DON'T FORGET THAT!"
The warrior blinked at his outburst.
He pursed his lips and gave her an apologetic glance. "There was a time when my hands dripped with the blood of those who offended me... and others like me. I killed countless many. But, I..."
Before he could say another word, a loud battle cry rang in their ears. The horses reared and backed away. Eight men came out of nowhere. Even Xena hadn't heard their breathing as they lay in wait under the bushes. Before either Caeneus or Xena could react, they were surrounded. In the flash of an eye, Xena's sword was drawn. Knowing that Caeneus hadn't yet pulled his from its sheath, she backed up against him protectively.
"Your sword, Caeneus! Draw your sword!" she hissed over her shoulder.
"Maybe..." he said calmly.
Xena was aghast. "What?! I can't fight them all if I'm worrying about you. Draw your sword!"
The men all waved their weapons in front of them. They wore heavy armor. Xena glared at one of them who was all but drooling as he ogled her. "Didn't your mother ever teach you it's rude to stare?" She jabbed her sword at him.
"Wait, Xena," Caeneus said evenly over his shoulder. Xena held her position against his back.
"What do you want?!" Caeneus growled.
The largest of the men spoke up. "Want? Ha! Ha! Ha! Why ya so sure we want anything besides your blood?!"
"If it was only our blood you're interested in, you would've struck by now."
"Good point," Xena said, loud enough for only Caeneus to hear.
"You're clever, ain't ya pretty boy?!" the man snarled. "It should be obvious what we want! We want what YOU'VE got!"
Xena couldn't believe he was joking with them.
The brute let out a mock guffaw. "Oh, and you're funny too. Xena! Ya got ya a real man here!"
Xena's eyes narrowed. She was tiring of this very quickly. "Yeah... take a good look, the lot of ya! He's more man than any of you will ever be!"
Caeneus smiled with conceit and started to whisper something to Xena over his shoulder.
Xena cut him off. "Caeneus, don't talk... fight!"
"I'll say one thing fer him, Xena. He's awful brave fer a dunce who don't wear armor and don't have the sense to draw his sword!" All the men snickered.
Caeneus glared at the man evenly. He backed up more and pressed fully into Xena. "I haven't drawn my sword yet because I still don't consider you a threat. You haven't even told me what you intend to do with 'what I've got.'"
"What we're gonna to do with her?!! HA! HA! Use your imagination, man!!" The men roared again.
Xena felt Caeneus become very still against her back. He didn't move a muscle. She thought she could actually feel the heat building in him. Now she knew what he'd been up to.
"That's the answer I was looking for!" Caeneus seethed. "Now Xena!!" He pushed off from her and whipped his sword out of its scabbard. In one fell swoop he sliced the stomachs of two men.
Meanwhile, Xena leaped spread eagle and kicked two men's jaws through the roofs of their mouths. When she landed, she rammed the hilt of her sword into another man's face. Caeneus twisted around and speared a man through the chest. Xena snuck a look and saw that Caeneus had become that familiar inferno of madness. He leaped into a double somersault and came down on top of the man closest to Xena. He kicked the man unconscious. While Xena began to parry with one of the men, Caeneus fought off two. One of them got in a well-placed boot and knocked the sword from his hand. Xena heard it hit the ground and let her opponent back her up to where she could see Caeneus's sword in the dirt. She kicked her adversary to the ground and then flicked the toe of her boot under Caeneus's sword.
"Caeneus!" she yelled and flipped it into the air for him.
Not expecting this, Caeneus thought Xena was in trouble and took his eyes off his adversaries. One of them slashed his sword at Caeneus's neck. The blade made contact, but Caeneus did not bleed. All three men and Xena stared at him for a moment, then continued fighting.
Xena thrust her sword into her attacker's groin. The other man whom she'd leveled had regained consciousness. He drew a knife and lunged at Xena while she was pushing the first man off her sword. Before she could dislodge it from the man's body, the knife came down into her chest. Xena fell to her knees.
Caeneus let out a deafening cry and dove at the man with the knife before he could plunge it into Xena again. Caeneus grasped the knife in his bare hand. The man ripped the knife away in a motion which should have sliced Caeneus's palm open, but no blood was produced. Caeneus grabbed the knife again and drove it, still in the man's hand, into his stomach. Caeneus immediately backflipped into the air, over the last two men who were running at him. He gripped the blade of one man's sword and rebounded the hilt back into the man's chest. The other man grazed Caeneus's arm with his sword. The swipe cut his shirt and clearly sliced his arm, but Caeneus's remained uninjured. Stupefied, the man paused, and Caeneus delivered a punch that sent him sprawling. The last man stumbled toward him. As the man fell, he swung his sword against Caeneus's leg. Caeneus didn't bother to deflect the attempt. The sword ripped his pants, but no blood flowed. The man collapsed on the ground. Caeneus booted his skull to make sure he'd sleep for a long while.
Still on her knees, Xena had sat back, holding her chest, watching the unbelievable. Caeneus had obviously been struck several times, but he didn't bleed!!
Caeneus ran to her and dropped to one knee.
She gaped at him. "By the gods!!"
"Yes, that's exactly right. Now lie down and let me look at that wound!" He immediately ripped off his vest and his shirt. He used the shirt to soak up blood which was running down her chest.
Recovering herself somewhat Xena blinked down at the cut over her breast. Realizing its proximity to her heart, she caught her breath and looked at Caeneus with wide eyes.
Caeneus pushed her back off her knees. "Lie down."
"I'm okay. I'll see for myself." She pulled the bloody shirt away.
"No, I'LL look at it! Lie back, Xena!!"
She did as she was told. Caeneus sopped up more blood with the shirt and peered down at the cut. It was very deep, just inside and above the swell of her right breast. She was bleeding a great deal.
"Take a deep breath."
Xena did, and Caeneus watched the cut for any signs that it had punctured a lung. "How do you feel?"
"Are your ribs fractured?"
Xena winced as she moved her right arm. "Don't think so."
Caeneus continued to wipe blood away so he could determine the severity of the wound. It's not TOO bad," he said in what Xena thought was an extremely convincing attempt at reassurance. "You're going to be catching fish in no time," he murmured absently.
"I could've gotten pretty creative with a string of fish just now." Xena tried to push herself up again.
"LIE DOWN!" Caeneus commanded. He held one of her shoulders to emphasize his order. "We need to stop the bleeding, and then I'm going to have to stitch this."
Xena's eyes bulged. "Think again!" She tried to rise once more.
Caeneus forced both of her shoulders down and held them there. "Xena, look at me!" She met his stare. "Xena, you know you're hurt. You're losing blood. That cut's not fatal, by any means, but it needs attention. If I don't stitch it up, it could become infected, and THAT could be fatal."
"You're not telling me anything I don't already know!" she spat.
"Then, what's the problem?!"
She faltered. She knew her answer was ridiculous. "Caeneus, I am NOT going to let a MAN touch my breast!" His face went blank. She held up a hand and shook her head hurriedly. "No, no... Never mind that YOU'D be touching my breast..." She swore and hoped she wasn't blushing. "It's just... you're a man!"
"Okkaayy...." Caeneus was completely bewildered.
Xena sighed heavily. "I've never met a MALE healer who could stitch worth a dinar. Their work always results in hideous scars which even a mother couldn't look at. YOU'RE not even a healer, Caeneus... and, after all... it IS my breast we're talking about. If anyone's going to stitch it, it's gonna be me!"
Caeneus fought to keep a huge smile from his lips. "Well, that's another rumor in the trash heap!"
"Now what?!" Xena's eyes were wide with weary impatience.
"Word on the streets is you don't give a damn about sex appeal."
Embarrassed, Xena shot back at him, "Yeah, all right!... I want beautiful breasts! What woman doesn't?!"
"None, that I know of," Caeneus answered solemnly.
"Right! So I'LL take care of it." She tried to remove his hands from her shoulders.
Caeneus touched her right cheek to make her look directly at him. "Xena, you have many skills... I'd be the first to sing your praises from Mount Olympus. But, you CANNOT sew that cut by yourself!" He pressed the shirt on the cut with his other hand. "Look, you have no way of knowing I'm being truthful when I tell you this... but, I DO know how to stitch a wound... and how to stitch well. I promise you won't have an ugly scar. In fact, I promise there'll hardly be ANY scar." She looked up at him doubtfully. He brushed a lock of hair from her eye. "Come on... You can watch, if you have the stomach for it..." She gave him a bored look. "...and if you're not pleased with my work, I'll turn the needle over to you."
"Will you trust me?" Caeneus gave her a look of genuine caring. She finally pursed her lips and nodded.
"All right. Was that so hard?" He took her hand and moved it to the shirt. "Hold pressure on this." He jumped up and whistled for the horses. They both came trotting up to Caeneus. He led Clio close to Xena. He stooped and took her hand away from the shirt and inspected the cut. "The bleeding has almost stopped. Keep pressing on it." He moved her hand back onto the shirt and left his hand on top of hers. "Xena, there was a large clearing just back there where we could set up camp. I need to start a fire to sterilize the needle and bandages. Do you think you can ride?"
"Do centaurs screw standing up?! Of course, I can ride!"
"Sorry... Didn't mean to insult you." Caeneus helped her to her feet and tried to help her onto Clio.
She pushed him away. "I can take care of myself!"
He threw up a hand in capitulation and moved to his own mount. He withdrew another shirt from a bag and pulled it over his head before he jumped onto Euterpe.
After riding the short distance to the clearing, Caeneus hopped of his horse, grabbed his bedroll, and ran to Xena. He started to help her again, but thought better of it and stood back while she slowly descended from Clio. He spread one of his blankets at the edge of the grassy area, near a tree. Xena started to sit down.
"Wait, Xena." Caeneus clutched her elbow. "You need to remove your armor and those leathers. They're dusty... the dirt might get into the cut."
Xena looked into his eyes. She saw only concern there and knew he had no intention but to help her. She nodded and tried to reach a clasp on her shoulder. She grimaced at the pain this caused.
"Here... let me help you." Caeneus quickly unfastened her armor and began to unlace her leathers.
Xena was not surprised at the ease with which he managed the hooks and laces. By now, she knew he wasn't a typical man whose fingers would have become tangled in the lacings. When they were off, she sat down on the blanket, now wearing just her shift.
As she lay down, he positioned the other folded blanket under her head. He lifted her hand and the shirt to examine the cut once more. "Keep pressing. I'll start a fire." He began to rise, then settled back on his knee. He pointed to her wound. "I know what this is all about, you know."
"You just wanted to get out of cooking dinner for me." Caeneus winked. He took one of the blankets from Clio's saddle and spread it over her. Then, he prepared what he needed to treat her cut.
Soon, a fire blazed and his medical supplies lay beside where he kneeled on the blanket. He'd poured water from a skin into his pot and heated it over the fire. Now that it was warm, he moved it next to him. "Are you ready?" he asked softly.
"I'm always ready," she said dryly.
Caeneus pulled the blanket down to her hips and lifted the bloody shirt from her chest. "It's very deep, Xena. I'll have to stitch two layers of tissue to ensure an abscess doesn't develop. I'm sorry I don't have anything to numb the wound. This is going to be painful."
Xena smirked. "Promises, promises."
Caeneus raised his eyebrows at this, then contemplated the wound. He dipped a rag in the water and used it to wipe away dried blood surrounding the cut. Dabbing gingerly at the wound, he was careful not to rake across the sensitive, raw flesh. Blood had run over and between her breasts. Caeneus used soft fingertips to draw down her shift a bit while he washed away the blood which was within a few inches of the wound. He left the rest for her to clean later. He picked up the pot. "Xena, I need to wash it out. Can you turn to the side, so the water will run off?"
Xena started to roll to her right.
Caeneus stopped her. "Wait." He put his hand on the right strap of her shift. He glanced at her quickly to check that she knew what he intended to do. Xena blinked her permission and watched his face as he slipped the strap far enough over her shoulder to draw the shift down so that it wouldn't get wet. He lowered it to just above her nipple. He looked back to her without any change in expression. "Okay, roll over."
Xena leaned slightly to the side. "'Lie down'... 'roll over'... What, am I doing tricks?" She groaned. "What's next? You wanna hear me bark?" She winced at the severe pain in her chest. The knife must have gone completely through her well-developed pectoral muscle.
Caeneus wedged his knee behind her back for support and poised the pot above the cut. "This might sting." He let water trickle out of the pot into the wound. Xena winced as the water ran over the gash and into her armpit. Caeneus removed his leg from behind her, and she rolled back. She took several deep breaths. Her chest was very sore, and the water made her nerve endings stand at attention. Caeneus picked up some clean, dry strips of cloth and laid them around the wound, so that only the cut was exposed to his view. He took a threaded needle between his fingers. "Would you like a stick to bite down on?"
"You gonna make me fetch it first?" She closed her eyes and steeled herself. "Just do it."
Caeneus placed his index finger and thumb on opposite sides of the cut and gently drew the lower layers of muscle together. He positioned the needle to take the first stitch. "Let me know if it gets to be too much, and I'll stop for a while." Xena nodded. With the skill of an experienced healer, he pushed the needle through the tissue delicately. Xena gritted her teeth and swallowed hard. He talked to her in low tones while he worked. Xena wasn't sure what he said... She was in too much agony to concentrate on his words, but the timbre of his voice spread over her mind like a balm, making the pain tolerable. After he'd made another stitch, she opened her eyes and raised her head to evaluate his work. The stitches were very tiny, neat, and well placed. His technique caused very little bleeding or puckering.
"Do I pass?"
"Verrry nice," she said through a clenched jaw.
She watched him take the next stitch. His hands were very steady. Xena started to sweat from the pain. Caeneus noticed this and paused. He looked down at her hand which was gripping his leg. Her fingers dug into his thigh.
"Sorry," she breathed and loosened her grip.
"No problem. Thick skin, remember?"
Xena tried to grin and took more deep breaths.
Caeneus bent over her again and made two more tiny stitches. "It'll be easier from here. I'm through with the deep stitches." He kept talking to her as he began to sew the epidermis... something about wishing he were a bard, so he could tell her a story while he stitched. For a few moments, Xena forgot the searing punctures as she observed his total concentration and the extreme care with which he handled the needle. His fingers were incredibly nimble and light on her skin. Their bodies closer than they had yet been, Xena couldn't help but explore his face. He was oblivious to her gaze as he drew the thread through her flesh again. She marveled at how smooth his complexion was. His hair... it was like corn silk. And, those lips... they weren't rough and chapped like most men's. They were very full and moist. She watched them as he spoke. For the first time, she realized he had hardly any facial hair... no afternoon stubble shadowing his upper lip. She ignored this. Nothing about Caeneus surprised her anymore. Unconsciously, she licked her lips as she wondered what it would feel like to caress such a soft cheek... or to feel velvety, pliant lips on her own. Xena blinked and took in the whole of his face again. She was transfixed by the gentle aura that emanated from him. What did he remind her of?! Mother of Zeus! What was it?!
"There! Finished." Caeneus's voice brought the warrior out of her reverie. He broke the thread and tied a knot near the cut. He removed the strips of cloth and swabbed the area again. He carefully wiped and dried her entire chest and the tops of both breasts. She winced as he patted the cut once more. "You okay?" he asked.
"Lovin every moment of it," she said in a throaty voice.
Caeneus made quick work of bandaging the cut. He sat back a bit and tugged on the bandage, gauging it's tautness. "Hmm... that should do... as long as you don't start hurling that chakram around." He smiled at her. "Lie flat for a while, okay?" He plopped a dirty swab in the pot of water and began to gather his supplies.
Xena touched his arm. "Caeneus..."
"Yeah?" He stopped and looked down at her.
"Thanks..." She bit her lower lip.
He chuckled. "Don't worry about it, Xena... You're right about having lovely breasts... You never know when you might want to expose one to subdue your enemies."
Xena rolled her eyes, and Caeneus continued cleaning up. A few moments later, he said, "You needn't worry, Xena."
She cocked an eyebrow at him.
He glanced at her breasts and then looked back into her blue eyes. "They're still beautiful."
Xena's lips parted in surprise. Caeneus leaned down and pulled the blanket over her. He stood and took his things to Euterpe's saddlebags. After grabbing his waterskin, her returned to kneel again next to Xena. He uncorked the skin and lifted it to her mouth. "Drink a little." Xena did. Caeneus pulled the skin away when she'd had enough. His fingers rushed to her cheek to catch some water that had escaped her lips. He paused, his now wet finger only inches from her face. Xena stared at his finger and then into his eyes. A memory poked its head through her consciousness and then disappeared before she could identify it. She tried to recollect the last time she'd felt this comfortable with someone.
The warrior had fallen asleep after she'd eaten. Caeneus had refused to leave her to go fishing or hunting. The thugs who'd survived their fight might still be lurking about, and Xena couldn't defend herself well in her condition. So, he'd unpacked dried meat, cheese, and bread for their dinner. Xena was drained from the pain which throbbed in her breast. Caeneus had removed the initial dressing and placed cold moss on the cut before he bandaged it again. That had eased the ache some and made it possible for her to get some rest.
When Xena woke, she saw that the fire was burning very low. Sensing Caeneus was not in the immediate vicinity, she sat up with a grunt and searched the clearing. She spotted him at the far reach of the area, sitting against a tree, staring into the sky. Gathering her blanket around her, she stood. When she did, she felt a stream of fresh air on her face. The lovely breeze seemed to have blown every bit of the day's sultriness away. Walking through the tall grass to where he sat, she was almost upon him before he glanced up at her.
"What were you doing?" she asked.
As if he was still deep in thought, Caeneus looked upwards again and said dreamily, "I was thinking that when I die... I don't want to go to Elysium. Instead, I'd like to become a star."
"Why a star?"
He chuckled warmly. "Because then I could look down on those I leave behind... and they could gaze up at me... every night." Caeneus smiled, then became aware that Xena was watching him. He frowned. "Xena, what are you doing over here? You should be resting."
"You don't need to worry anymore. I have amazing recuperative powers."
He hesitated and searched her eyes. He held out his hand and, when she took it, coaxed her to sit next to him. Sliding his arm around her, he turned his body and pulled her close so she was leaning on his chest. He left his hand on the blanket covering her arm and leaned back against the tree again.
They sat silently for a while, listening to the crickets and night birds. "Look at the stars..." he breathed.
Xena looked up. Ten thousand twinkling stars arched across the sky. She'd never seen so many stars, even from the crow's nest of her ship's main mast on a black night in the middle of the ocean. "This is the best time to watch," he murmured. "The moon will rise soon, and its brightness will block out some of them." He tightened his arm around her slightly. "The stars are falling tonight... if you wait, you'll see."
Xena leaned her head back on his shoulder and let her eyes roam the heavens. She chased away memories of other nights, after doing battle, when she'd stared with unfocused eyes into the sky, trying to regain her grip on the edge of sanity.
They both inhaled when a blazing star suddenly shot through the sky. They watched its tail fade away, only to have their eyes drawn to another shooting pulsar. Xena thought she heard it hiss. One after another, stars periodically sailed over their heads as the mild wind played with their hair.
Xena didn't know how long they sat hushed against the tree. She didn't feel any need to speak. It seemed like they were one. Their breathing rose and fell simultaneously, and they both reacted at the same time to each star which burst into sight. They remained like that for gods knew how long, overwhelmed by the splendor. The experience was utterly timeless. The warrior had no idea if was moments or candlemarks later when Caeneus finally nudged her and, without a word, helped her to her feet and walked with her, hand in hand, back to their camp.
When they reached the fire, he steadied her descent onto her blanket and helped her arrange the other blanket over her legs. His eyes tarried on her face for an instant, and he blinked a smile. Then, he rose, stoked and fueled the fire, and lay down on his blanket.
Xena watched his breathing become slower as he fell asleep. She had never before used the word 'beautiful' to describe a man, but it was the right word for Caeneus.
"How did you become invulnerable?!"
Caeneus had just woken up and was rubbing his eyes. He blinked at Xena, who was squatting near the fire. "Huh?" he croaked in a sleepy voice.
"What part of that didn't you understand?" Xena was very serious. She wanted an answer, and she wanted it now. During the night she'd woken several times, bothered by her burgeoning feelings for Caeneus. Afraid to trust him or herself, she'd spent the better part of the morning persuading herself it would be foolhardy to indulge her cursed wonderful feelings for this person. Who knew what his motives were?! He might even be working with the gods. After all, he had obviously been given a devine gift... Which god had made him impervious to the sword? What had Caeneus done to earn this gift?
Caeneus shook the cobwebs from his mind and sat up. He blinked a few more times, trying to gauge her mood. "Xena... we can talk about this later." He started to get up. "I should redress your wound. How do you feel this morn..."
Xena rose and propelled him back on his rump. "We're going to talk about it now!" She towered over him and put her hands on her hips.
"Well!... I see you're feeling better." He stared up at her. At last, he said softly, "Okay, Xena. I'll explain it to you. But, let me look at that cut first."
The absolute caring in his voice moved Xena. She nodded and kneeled next to him. Caeneus stood and retrieved the bandages from Euterpe's saddlebag. He returned to the blanket and bent beside her. Upon removing the soiled dressing, he smiled. "It looks very good... you heal fast!"
"So I've been told," Xena said in a bored tone.
Caeneus rewrapped the stab wound with clean bandages, then restowed his supplies. He sat again on the blanket; his knees spread but drawn up, his arms clasped around them. Xena gave him a look of 'get on with it.' He gazed directly into her eyes. "Xena, the story of how I became invulnerable is very complicated."
"You're not insinuating I'm too dull to..."
"No, no." He held up a hand. "I'm just not sure I can explain it all on an empty stomach."
His attempt at humor had no effect on the warrior. She arched an eyebrow and waited.
Caeneus succumbed to her obstinate stare and sighed heavily. "Xena... I was made invulnerable in return for an act which pleased Poseidon. I'm not proud of it. In fact, I'd return the gift if I could recoup what I paid. I regret the trade." Seeing the dissatisfied and defensive look in Xena's eyes, he went on. "I hate most of the gods as much as you do, Xena. Surely you know I don't mean you any harm. You needn't give a second thought to my invincibility or my motives..." He narrowed his eyes. "... anymore than I need to worry about your plans for me. Right?" Before she could reply, he continued. "I just want to enjoy your company until we get to the wedding. That's all." He paused and grinned at her. "Well... I would like to look into those spectacular blue eyes a few more times... and, I might like to hear you sing at least once... But, that's the extent of my schemes... I swear."
Caeneus had turned the tables on her so quickly, Xena couldn't compose herself in time to speak again before he did.
"Xena. I'm hungry! Can we please have breakfast now?!" He stood and stretched his arms over his head.
"Yeah... fine," she said impassively, still lost in her thoughts.
Only after an impressive pitch of her chakram was Xena able to persuade Caeneus that she could defend herself and talk him into leaving her alone long enough to find them something to eat. Too quickly, Caeneus came back through the trees with a small, wild piglet. Beaming, he joked that it was a descendant of the Calydonian boar. She'd hoped he would take his time so she could be alone to absorb everything she was feeling. She wanted to be angry with him. Nothing about him made any sense whatsoever. Her defensive instincts warned her she'd better get a hold of herself soon. Since when had she spent so little time thinking about strategy and so much time wallowing in mushy, spongy, pitiful emotions. Yet, every time she tried to concentrate on her army, Caeneus's eyes appeared in her mind.
She identified with this man, though she wasn't really sure why. He was extremely gentle... and quick to laugh. Why, for the first time, did she find these things appealing in a man? There was something about him... something inside. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she felt absolutely drawn to him on a very fundamental level. It wasn't just sexual arousal. She did long to be next to him... but it wasn't because she craved physical pleasure... well, not entirely. It was an ache... for intimacy... to be united with his mind and emotions... to feel his passion and to more fully realize the sweetness he evoked. It was as if he was tapping veins of emotion that she didn't know existed within... or that she'd somehow forgotten. Maybe it was better that they'd been forgotten. Sappy emotions were dangerous. A strong warrior had no use for them. Gods, but she was enjoying these feelings Caeneus was digging up.
By the time Xena stopped analyzing the thoughts which were crashing around in her mind, it was late afternoon. They were just outside a village. She'd hardly been aware of their surroundings as they rode. The warrior looked over at Caeneus. He met her eyes immediately.
"Welcome back," he said kindly. He put his hand on her arm. "How's the wound?"
Xena hadn't once thought about the cut. "Forget my breast already," she said curtly. "Then, realizing Caeneus didn't deserve her crassness, she blinked apologetically.
Caeneus's hand tightened before he removed it. "We need to find a place to eat. Are you hungry?"
"I suppose so." Xena felt very hungry, but it wasn't necessarily for food. Her mind, soul, and body were yearning to be satisfied in a way she wasn't sure she understood.
"I have friends here who own an inn. We can dine there." Caeneus urged Euterpe down a cozy close. They stopped in front of an ancient establishment and entered.
Xena only had time to notice that the inn's patrons were mostly female before a she heard a loud gasp. The woman who inhaled so jubilantly flew at Caeneus and encircled him in her arms. Xena's eyebrow reached to the ceiling. The woman was lovely. Her long hair was almost as blonde as Caeneus's; her eyes were emerald green. She must have been about three winters or so older than Caeneus. Xena saw tears brimming in her eyes as she tiptoed to hug him. The two embraced for several moments. When they broke apart, the woman ran her thumbs gently over his eyebrows, framed his face with her fingertips, and gazed into his eyes.
"Can you still see me?" Caeneus asked in a low voice.
"Oh, yes," the woman breathed.
Continued - Part 3 (Conclusion)