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THE GATHERING STORM
Xena arrived at Argoís stable and found her mare watered and brushed and now contentedly munching on some hay and oats. Xena approached the great war-horse and laid a loving hand on her neck, stroking her and speaking softly into the horseís ear.
Xena knew she had left their tent rather abruptly and reminded herself to apologize to Gabrielle for treating her like a child. Xena was fully aware that Gabrielle was most certainly no longer a child. She wasnít even the naive young woman who had followed her two years ago. But was she up to the challenge of what lay ahead in the coming days? Xena could only pray that she was. Just as Gabrielle had faith in Xena, so the warrioress had faith in the bard. Gabrielle possessed a level of inner strength and courage that Xena admired greatly. Gabrielle had seen cruelty and had faced hate, yet she remained true to herself. But how much could one person take before it became too much?
The strain of caring for the wounded Athenians the last time they faced the Horde had taken itís toll on Gabrielle and Xena could not and would not put her through that pain again. But she couldnít exactly allow Gabrielle to follow her into the battle either. Xena knew it was not in the bardís nature to stand by and do nothing, so she was faced with a unique problem, what to do with her?
Perhaps Marmax can find something safe for her to do during the battle. Something on the headquarters staff, away from the fighting. Xena resolved to speak with Marmax that evening about it. Satisfied that Argo was being well cared for, Xena decided to briefly survey the camp defenses before returning to her quarters for the evening meal.
Xena walked slowly among the men, making her way to the perimeter of the camp and the edge of the treeline surrounding the narrow plain. She could see above her sentries posted along the ridgeline to the west and knew that beyond the ridge in the forests surrounding the valley were roving patrols similar to the one she and Gabrielle had encountered earlier that day. Everywhere she looked, men had their eyes trained on the trees around them, while others dozed next to them. At times she could see them switch roles so that there were always a fresh set of eyes on the lookout.
Xena followed the contour of the trees that ringed two sides of the area to the west and north, and could see that preparations were being made for the upcoming assault. Men were readying pikes and lances, sharpening swords, and digging trenches in which to hide their numbers. The ridges to the west and east formed a natural cut in the landscape that narrowed the direction from which the Horde might attack. Marmax had chosen this ground well. With regiments posted along the ridges looking down on them and a division of men left to defend the cut, they seemed well prepared to deal with whatever size force the Horde attempted to bring into battle. Satisfied for now, Xena made her way toward the officerís encampment to find Gabrielle.
Xena returned to the tent they had been assigned, pulled back the flap and stepped inside. She was only mildly surprised to find that Gabrielle was not there and stepped back outside to locate her friend.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called, but received no response. Xena walked a few steps away from the tent, but realized that without knowing which direction Gabrielle had taken, she would be rather difficult to locate. Xena noticed a young officer sitting outside his quarters sharpening his sword and decided perhaps someone had seen the bard leave.
"Excuse me, lieutenant, did you see a young woman carrying a staff leave that tent over there?" Xena asked.
The officer raised his head from his work, his eyes widening at the sight of the six-foot Warrior Princess glaring down at him. He rose hurriedly to his feet as if the General himself was standing in front of him.
"Yes maíam. She left about an hour ago, headed off toward the enlisted menís area." He replied.
Xenaís eyes narrowed in response to the lieutenantís report and fought to repress her anger at Gabrielle for not realizing the danger presented in camp. Not that I really explained the danger either. Sheís never been in a situation like this before. Weíll have to have a long talk when I find her.
"Thanks." Xena replied simply, turning in the direction Gabrielle had taken.
The lieutenantís voice brought Xena around.
"Are you here to help us defeat the Horde?" He asked hopefully.
Xena considered his question for a moment. Was she? Could she do it? Did she have what they needed to overcome the Horde? Xena could see the man needed some reassurance. He needed to know that there was hope for victory, otherwise he would be useless as a leader on the battlefield. If he was to enable his men to believe they had a chance, he had to believe.
"Yes, well, Iím not here to lose, now am I?"
The lieutenant smiled at Xenaís wry humor. "No maíam."
Xena returned the grin with a slight smile of her own before continuing in her pursuit of the bard. She found Gabrielle just a few minutes later walking toward her on her way back to the tent.
Gabrielle saw Xena striding toward her, a slight scowl on her face. Xena hadnít seen her yet, and Gabrielle could see the faint traces of worry in Xenaís eyes. As they moved toward each other, Xenaís attention was drawn to the bobbing of Gabrielleís staff and was reassured to have found her friend safe. Gabrielle watched as the look of relief washed briefly across Xenaís features, so fleeting that had she not been looking, she would have missed it.
As she neared the bard, Xena made a conscious decision not to berate her for her wandering off. Gabrielle was an adult and it was time she started treating her as one.
"Gabrielle, I was looking for you. Itís almost time for supper."
If Xena had said the sky was green, Gabrielle would not have been more shocked. Normally the warrioress would have launched into a ten minute lecture about listening to her when she told her to do something, or not do something, as the case may be. Then she would say that she was only looking out for the young womanís safety. Maybe sheís actually starting to see me as a woman, as an equal. Gabrielle decided not to comment on Xenaís sudden change in attitude.
"Sorry, Xena. I didnít realize it had gotten so late."
Xena turned to walk alongside Gabrielle as they returned to their quarters. They walked in silence for a few moments before Xenaís curiosity got the best of her.
"So, where were you, anyway?" She hoped the question would sound like a simple inquiry from a friend, and not an accusation.
"Telling stories, actually. I met a bard here who tells a wonderful story, so I stopped to listen, and they asked me if I would tell one. So I did."
"So who is this bard?"
"His name is Diomedes. I think heís just a soldier, Athenian from his uniform. He told a wonderful rendition of the story of Perseus and Medusa." Gabrielle said enthusiastically, her admiration for this bard showing. "They tell stories to each other every afternoon before the evening meal. They asked me to join them again tomorrow."
The invitation worried Xena. She didnít like the idea of Gabrielle venturing among the enlisted men alone. She decided that now was a good time to impress upon Gabrielle the dangers that the enlisted men could pose, but how to do so without sounding like she was forbidding the bard from seeing her new friends?
"Gabrielle, Iím not going to tell you not to go and see them tomorrow, but the enlisted camp can be a very rough place. Many men who end up in armies like this one are not nice people. They sometimes take military service instead of prison time for crimes like stealing or getting into bar fights."
"Xena, Iíll be careful. I promise." Gabrielle replied.
"I know you will. I just wanted you to be aware of the dangers, ok?"
Gabrielle smiled and nodded, the fact that Xena had not ordered her to stay away from Diomedes and her other new friends making her feel even more like an equal.
As the two women approached their tent, they noticed a Metoan officer standing outside waiting for them.
"Xena." He said, saluting. "The General has ordered that I escort the both of you to the officerís mess."
Xena nodded slightly as he turned and led them in the direction of the mess tents. She could smell them before she could see them, the air suddenly filled with the sounds and smells of hundreds of men taking their turn at the chow line.
The mess tents were placed directly in between the officerís quarters and the enlisted quarters, with separate tents for each. The officerís tent was slightly larger, with long tables and benches set up so that the men may take their meals together. The enlisted tent, however, was nothing more than a long table set up with large vats of stew and numerous loaves of hard crusted bread. Each man was given a bowl of stew and a hunk of bread and sent off to claim a place on the ground with his comrades and eat.
As they approached the mess lines, a ripple passed through the enlisted men. They had been informed that two women were joining the fight and that the commanding General had ordered that they conduct themselves in a fashion that brought honor to their units. Most of the men heeded this order, knowing that to disobey meant a public whipping and confinement in the stockade. But the General couldnít order them not to look.
Xena noticed the stir that their entrance had made, but also noted that the men seemed to be well disciplined. No one made any move toward them, but merely followed them with their eyes. She made a mental note to compliment Marmax on his troops.
Gabrielle had also noticed the amount of attention they were receiving and decided to follow Xenaís lead and do nothing. She followed the Metoan officer until they were standing before the entrance to the officerís mess when she noticed a soldier waving his arms above his head to get her attention. Stopping and turning to get a better look at him, Gabrielle recognized Diomedes and Lycas from earlier that afternoon.
"Diomedes!" Gabrielle called, returning his wave.
Xena turned as Gabrielle called out, catching the bardís arm as she started to head off in the direction of her new friends.
"Gabrielle, who are they?" Xena asked.
"Thatís Diomedes and Lycas. I met them this afternoon. Come on, I want to introduce you." Gabrielle said as she dragged her friend off in the direction of the enlisted tent.
Diomedes and Lycas seemed more than a little intimidated by the sight of the Warrior Princess heading toward them, but tried to downplay their reactions. It wouldnít help their life in camp, or their reputations, to be seen quaking in front of two women, even if one of them had been one of the greatest warlords who had ever lived.
"Diomedes, Lycas, this is Xena. Diomedes is the bard I told you about, Xena." Gabrielle said, making her introductions.
"Diomedes. Lycas" Xena said, nodding her head slightly.
"Xena." Diomedes said simply, his face brightening as he turned to face Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, join us for dinner, wonít you?"
The change in Diomedes was not lost on Xena, but Gabrielle barely seemed to notice.
"I donít know, what do you think Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Itís up to you, Gabrielle. Just remember what we talked about earlier, ok?" Xena replied. Here it was, the true test of just how much she trusted Gabrielle to take care of herself. Xena just hoped she was doing the right thing.
"I remember, Xena. Iíll see you back at our quarters later." Gabrielle said smiling.
Xena nodded and watched as Gabrielle struck up a conversation with Lycas as they headed off in the direction of the chow line, Diomedes trailing slightly behind. Xena reached out and grabbed the young soldier by the arm, pulling him up short.
"Iím trusting you to look out for her. I would be VERY upset if anything happened to Gabrielle." Xena said menacingly, speaking into his ear.
Diomedes blanched visibly. "I wonít let anything happen to her, Xena. You have my word as an member of the Athenian Army, I will protect her."
"Iím counting on you Diomedes." Xena replied, releasing his arm. "Donít tell her of any of this."
Diomedes nodded once and then jogged to catch up to Lycas and Gabrielle.
Xena knew she should trust Gabrielle to take care of herself, but letting go of her protectiveness over the young woman was proving to be rather difficult, and she figured it was better to impress upon Diomedes her wishes that Gabrielle remain safe than be sorry later that she hadnít. Xena watched them for a moment before turning to the Metoan officer and gesturing for him to lead the way.
Xena was led to a long rectangular table against the far wall of the mess tent at which sat Marmax and three of his commanders, one Metoan, one Athenian, and the other Thessilian. The sight of the two former enemies now conferring to defeat a common enemy caused Xena to smile inwardly. Her escort approached the table, saluted the General and then stood at attention, waiting to be dismissed.
Marmax returned the salute and dismissed the officer.
"Xena, come sit with us." Marmax said, waving at an empty seat next to him. "Where is Gabrielle?" He asked, worry lining his face.
"She decided to eat with some new friends." Xena replied.
"Are you sure thatís wise? You know what itís like in camp..."
"Donít worry, Marmax. I trust Gabrielle. Sheíll be fine." Xena reassured as she moved to take the seat next to the General.
Marmax wasnít at all convinced, but decided to defer to Xenaís judgement, knowing that she would never let any harm come to the bard.
"Actually, I wanted to speak with you about Gabrielle." Xena said. "I was hoping you might have some position on your command staff for her during the battle. Something to keep her back from the front lines."
"Iím sure my adjutant could use someone to read the incoming reports from my division commanders in the field and pass on only the most important information, or someone to write out responses. Yes Iím sure I can find something for her where sheíll be safe." Marmax responded.
An aide arrived with a tray laden with food and began to set the table with the evening meal. The General helped himself to the eveningís fare while turning to speak to Xena over his shoulder.
"Xena, we were just discussing the ridges to the west and east. Colonel Typhon has suggested that they are undermanned and wants to use our reserve from the center of our lines to reinforce the flanks on the ridges. What do you think?"
"No, the ridges are secure enough. The Horde are not the subtlest of warriors. They attack with overwhelming numbers and they usually come straight ahead. Itís not in their nature to attack the flanks, but they usually attack only forces smaller than their own. What makes you think they will attack here?" Xena said as she reached to fill her plate.
"Our reconnaissance has reported that they have been much bolder since their encounter with you and the Athenians at their outpost. But they also report that they seem to have been reinforced and are now nearly 30,000 strong." Marmax replied somberly.
"30,000?" Xena asked incredulously. "Are you sure? I have never heard of them amassing such numbers before."
"Itís been reported by more than one source, and the reports were confirmed just recently. They are definitely gearing up for something big." Marmax said.
Xena considered the gravity of what Marmax had said. If the Horde were truly gathering such a large force, they may not have a chance after all. From her estimates the allies had maybe 40,000 men, and against 30,000 Horde warriors that may not be enough.
Suddenly there was a great deal of commotion near the entrance to the tent. A young soldier, not much older than Gabrielle, came crashing through the flap demanding to see the commanding General. The soldier was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily as if he had run miles without stopping to get there. Two of the guards at the door attempted to stop the young man, but he could not be silenced.
"Please!" He pleaded. "I must see General Marmax, itís urgent!"
Upon hearing this, Marmax rose to his feet and bade the soldier to approach his table. Xena watched all of this intently, the beginnings of fear starting to tickle at the back of her mind. Xena fiercely clamped down on her feelings, now was not the time.
The soldier approached the General and saluted, the bright sheen of sweat upon his brow speaking not only of exertion, but also of a great fear.
"General Marmax." He began. "The enemy is on the move. The patrols to the north and west report mass movement by the Horde in this general direction." The soldier said breathlessly, anxious to deliver his message and then return to his unit.
Marmax did not immediately respond to the report, but considered his next order very carefully, the decisions he made over the next few hours could be crucial to the survival of his army and the outcome of the battle that lay ahead. Xena had come to her feet beside him, and now waited patiently for his orders, but Marmax could see that she was tensed like a coiled spring, ready to strike, ready for battle.
"Thank you soldier, you are dismissed to your commanding officer. You have done well." Marmax began. "Colonel Typhon, Colonel Adrastus, assemble your men. You will come fall in with the Corinthians already in place in the center of our lines. My Metoan infantry will held in reserve behind the center lines. Meet me in my command tent in two hours to discuss the final battle plans." Marmax paused, and saw that no one had yet to move from their places.
"Move!" He ordered. At his command, the tent emptied quickly, leaving only Marmax and Xena. The General turned to Xena, a stricken look on his face. It was a look that Xena had seen many times before, a look that she herself had worn more than once; a look of a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders and wasnít sure if he was strong enough to bear the load.
Xena laid her hand briefly on the Generalís shoulder. "Iím going to find Gabrielle. Weíll meet you in your tent in an hour. There are some things I think we should discuss before you meet with the other men."
Marmax nodded as Xena left his side his mind reeling from the news. He had known that the Horde would attack soon, but he had hoped for more time. He could only pray that their preparations were enough.
Xena walked through the ranks of men searching intently for Gabrielle. Time was of the essence, and she needed to find the young bard quickly so that she might prepare her for the coming battle before the warrioress was needed elsewhere. Gabrielle had never seen a battle on this scale before and Xena wanted to prepare her, at least in some small way, for what she would be seeing over the next several days.
As she rounded a small cluster of tents, Xena spotted Gabrielle sitting with a group of four men, talking and laughing. Gabrielle was sitting with her back to the warrioress, and didnít see her approach. It was not until the others had stopped speaking to gape at the Warrior Princess striding purposefully toward them that Gabrielle realized that something was wrong. She turned to look over her shoulder at what could demand her friendsí attention so completely. Gabrielle saw the look of determination on Xenaís face and immediately became alarmed. She regained her feet as Xena closed the distance between them.
"Xena? What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Iím sorry to interrupt, Gabrielle. Somethingís come up. You need to come with me, now." Xena began but she was cut off by the sound of officers and sergeants calling their men to formation.
"Fall in men! Fall in by company and regiment! Fall in!"
"Itís ok, Gabrielle. We have to go." Diomedes said hurriedly as he stooped to gather up his short sword. "Weíll see you again soon!" He called over his shoulder as he raced to join his unit.
"Xena, whatís happened?" Gabrielle asked as she gazed at the activity springing up all around her. Everywhere she looked men were racing to grab discarded uniforms and weapons and running to fall into their formations.
"Not here, Gabrielle. Come on, weíve got some things to take care of." Xena replied, taking Gabrielle by the arm and leading her back toward the officerís encampment.
Xena carried Gabrielle, until Marmax had insisted that she place her on one of the carts pulled by tired horses toward the waiting city of Corinth. They had not stopped since their retreat from the cut, and Xena had only been able to make a cursory examination of Gabrielleís injuries. She had taken quite a blow to the head, and Xena had dressed the wound as best she could along the road south, the bleeding had seemed to slow and finally stop, but Gabrielle had yet to display any sign of waking.
Xena had not left her side during their journey, and now walked beside the cart carrying Gabrielle and two other wounded men. Xenaís eyes were cold and hard. She had severely underestimated the Horde, and it had nearly cost Gabrielle her life. She would not make the same mistake again.
It was a broken and dispirited army that journeyed south toward Corinth, shamed by their defeat and shocked by the number of dead and wounded. They had been forced to leave the dead behind, their bodies almost certainly defiled by the Horde victors. For the injured, there was little time to tend to wounds or lend comfort, their moans and cries hanging unbearably in the stillness of midday. For those who now marched toward the waiting city, there was only dread at what they knew was to come. The Horde would pursue them until they were forced to face them on the field of battle again, they could feel it. As the hot sun beat down on them with an unrelenting intensity, their thoughts turned dark with rage and bitterness. Wait until we get to Corinth. They thought to themselves. Weíll show those savages! Theyíve slaughtered our brothers and our friends for too long! Corinth is our haven, there we can make a stand and finally destroy them, once and for all!
Marmax led the battered and bloody army, his own thoughts black and dark. He wanted nothing more than to end this, and drive the Horde from the Greek countryside. Shortly after clearing the cut, he had dispatched two of his more skilled officers to Thrace and Macedonia. The General now realized they had no hope of defeating the Horde without help, he only prayed that the Thracians and Macedonians would heed his urgent warnings and send as many men as they could spare. They would know soon if it would be enough.
Marmaxís gaze shifted to Xena. The warrioress walked silently beside him, leading her warhorse, her countenance enigmatic, her thoughts locked carefully away from him. The General watched as Xenaís gaze would shift periodically to the still form of the bard, linger there for a moment, and then shift back again. Marmaxís heart ached to see Gabrielle this way once again, but he knew there was little he could do for her until they reached Corinth.
Marmax ordered that a rearguard follow behind the army to keep track of the Hordeís progress. It wouldnít take them long to free themselves from the trap the allies had laid, but the Horde army would have to backtrack nearly a full day before finding a clear path around the defile. As they finally drew within sight of the walled city, the first reports that the Horde had begun the arduous task of pulling back from the gorge were reaching the General.
The sigh of relief that escaped the throats of the allied soldiers was audible as they passed within the city, and the temporary safety its walls provided. Marmax immediately began setting up a command post, assessing his position, and his command staff. He needed to know how many of his officers had been killed or wounded and promote others to take their places as quickly as possible, the men needed strong leadership, now more than ever.
After making sure that Gabrielle was comfortable and safe, Xena set about organizing a makeshift hospital within the covered marketplace, the stalls and awnings giving the wounded some relief from the oppressive heat. Once she had the army healers working with the Corinthian healers tending to the wounded and looking after the details of getting the hospital up and running, Xena went to Gabrielle.
She found the young bard laying on a bed of soft furs beneath a small awning asleep, unconscious still, her breathing shallow. Xena removed the bandage from around Gabrielleís head, wincing at the sight of the wound but was gratified to see that it was not deep. She gently and thoroughly cleaned the wound and redressed it, careful not to jostle Gabrielle unnecessarily. Xena kept herself firmly detached from her emotions while she tended to her friend, otherwise she feared that she would be unable to do what she must to help her. The fear that she had felt at seeing Gabrielle unconscious on the floor of the command tent had been almost more than she could bear.
The late afternoon sun slipped silently toward dusk, its shadow lengthening over Corinth and the army within. Xena sat alone at Gabrielleís bedside, staring down at her as she slept. Until she woke it would be difficult to ascertain the extent of her injuries. Gabrielle had not stirred once since she was struck down, and Xena was afraid for her.
Impulsively, Xena leaned forward, reached down and took Gabrielleís limp hand in her own. She sat that way for a moment, then leaned back wearily, still grasping the young womanís hand.
"Gabrielle," she whispered, almost to herself. "You promised weíd walk out of there together. Donít think Iíll let you forget you broke that promise." Xena paused, her emotions thick in her throat. "Just come back to me, and maybe Iíll forget all about it, ok?"
The minutes slipped past and the night began to creep over the city, and still Xena kept her vigil. It was several hours later when Xena sensed a presence behind her.
"Marmax." Xena said, not turning to confirm the newcomerís identity.
"How is she?" The General asked quietly.
Xena turned at his question, the look on her face speaking volumes. She just didnít know. And the not knowing was tearing her apart. Marmax reached out and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"You and I have both seen her beat death before. Sheíll be fine. Sheís a strong young woman." Marmax said confidently. "Come, one of my healers will watch over her. You need to eat."
"No." Came the sharp reply. "Iím not leaving her."
"Xena, please. You havenít eaten all day, you need to keep your strength up. For her sake. You know she would want you to take care of yourself."
Xena opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again. In her mind she could hear Gabrielle berating her to go, get some rest, eat something. The warrioress sighed in defeat.
"I want to be notified the minute thereís a change."
"Of course." Marmax replied as he gestured to the healer who, up until now had been waiting in the shadows. "You are not to leave her for any reason. Understood?" He ordered.
"Understood sir." The healer replied as he moved to seat himself at Gabrielleís side.
Xena stood reluctantly, leaned over and smoothed back a lock of red blonde hair, and kissed Gabrielle lightly on the forehead. As she pulled back to look into the peaceful face before her, Xena whispered to her, "Rest well, my friend. Iíll be back soon." Lingering for a moment longer, Xena then allowed Marmax to lead her to the officerís mess area and a hot meal.
Xena barely picked at her plate, her mind constantly drifting back to Gabrielle. Once again her pride had cost the bard dearly. She felt her heart lurch within her chest as she reflected back on the sight of Gabrielle lying helpless on the floor of the tent, the Horde warrior bent over her. The guilt crashed over her like a tidal wave, threatening to overwhelm her in its intensity. Xena suddenly felt like a trapped animal, an overriding need to get up, to do something, anything driving her to her feet.
Marmax saw the warrioress push back her chair and surge to her feet and reached out to lay his hand on her forearm.
"Whatís wrong? Where are you going?" He asked, a concerned look on his face.
"I canít just sit here, Marmax. I have to do something. Iím going to check the wall defenses, make sure everyoneís in position."
"Xena, the reports weíve received have indicated that the Horde is at least two days march from here. That rock slide completely cut them off." Marmax said. "Please, try to relax."
"I canít!" Was the heated reply. Xena took a deep breath and attempted to calm herself. "If you need me Iíll be on the wall or at the hospital." Xena said tersely, as she strode from the mess hall and out into the cool night air.
Xena was nearly to the main outer walls when a soldier calling her name brought her up short. She turned to see a young Athenian warrior jogging toward her. He stopped a few paces from her and saluted.
"Yes," Xena said. "What is it?"
"General Marmax said that I might find you here. Itís the Metoan healer. Heís asking that you be brought to the healing place immediately."
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked hesitantly, fear registering in her eyes and tightening her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe.
"Thatís all the message said, just that they want you there right away. Iím sorry."
Xena looked toward the marketplace and broke into a dead run, her panic driving her. No! No, this isnít happening! Her mind cried out.
The warrioress tore through the stalls, heedless of those around her. She caught sight of the Metoan healer standing just outside the small kiosk where she had left Gabrielle. Xena charged toward the man, grabbing him by the front of his tunic and nearly lifting him bodily off the ground.
"Gabrielle..." was all she could manage to croak out.
The healer fought to maintain some control of himself and tried to speak through his fright.
"Sheís ok. Really." He managed. "Iím sorry, I didnít mean to alarm you."
His words slowly registered in Xenaís mind and she eased her grip on the healer. "Then why..." She asked slowly, confusion tearing through her.
"Sheís awake." He replied simply. "And sheís asking for you."
Xenaís eyes widened as relief flooded through her, washing away her fear and panic, leaving her shaking. Xena released the healer and turned to enter the kiosk.
Gabrielle lay on her bed, her body relaxed, her breathing deep and even. Xena moved to kneel next to her, reaching to take the young womanís hand in her own. Gabrielle stirred slightly at the contact, opening her eyes sleepily. Her eyes drifted for a moment, confusion evident on her face. Then the bardís eyes came to rest on Xena and she smiled slightly.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said quietly, her voice no more than a whisper.
"Shh. Donít try to talk." Xena replied smiling. "Youíve got quite a bump on the head." She said, reaching up to examine the bandages more closely, pleased to see that the wound had long since stopped bleeding. "Are you thirsty?"
Gabrielle nodded slightly and Xena reached for a waterskin lying on a nearby table. She reached out and lifted Gabrielle up by the shoulders, supporting her with her arm and held the skin to the bardís lips. After she had taken a couple of sips, Gabrielle settled back into Xenaís embrace, relaxing in the feeling of safety and comfort she felt in the warrioressí arms. With her free hand, Xena capped the waterskin and set it aside, shifting herself on the small pallet to gather Gabrielle into her arms as if she were a small child.
Normally Gabrielle would have been indignant at being treated this way, but now, through the haze of pain and exhaustion, the feeling of Xenaís arms around her brought a sense of peace. She rested her head in the crook of Xenaís arm, suddenly weary from the exertion of sitting up. Gabrielle opened her eyes a crack to look into the deep blue ones above her.
"Are you ok?" The bard asked softly. "You werenít hurt were you?"
"No Gabrielle, Iím fine, really." Xena replied, rocking her gently in her arms. "Now please, go back to sleep. You need your rest."
Gabrielle nodded once and then sank even further into Xenaís arms, allowing the rocking motion to lull her. Xena could feel her body begin to relax, but then the young Amazon tensed suddenly, her eyes flying open.
"Maro..." She breathed. "He was hurt...I...I couldnít stop them..."
"Shh, shh." Xena said. "He was hurt, but heís alive. I promise, if you go to sleep, Iíll go and check on him, ok?"
Her mind put at ease, Gabrielle once again eased into the warrioressí arms, finally allowing the gentle rocking motion to soothe her into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Xena could feel Gabrielleís breathing deepen, becoming even, her body relaxing into the quiet embrace of sleep. She sat there, on the edge of Gabrielleís pallet, slowly rocking her for several minutes, unwilling to let go of the bard just yet. She had nearly lost Gabrielle yet again, and was unable to pull herself away from her side.
Xenaís body then too began to relax, as the tension, fear, and grief left her and was replaced with a feeling of calm. Gabrielle would recover, and that was the most important thing right now. Everything else around her was secondary.
Once she was certain that Gabrielle was resting comfortably, Xena gently laid her back and eased off the side of the pallet to kneel at her side. Gabrielle began to awaken at the movement, but settled once again when Xena laid a comforting hand on her arm, stroking it lightly. The warrioress gazed for a long moment at the serene face before her, her course set, her decision final.
"Never again, Gabrielle." Xena whispered. "Never again will I risk your life the way I did today. And this time I wonít let you talk me out of it." Xena rose and walked the few steps to the entrance of the kiosk, and after one last backward glance, she moved off into the night.
Xena left the marketplace and went in search of Marmax. She found him several minutes later in his command post going over the reports from his remaining officers and commanders. He looked up as she entered the room, his face drawn, worry lining his eyes.
"How is Gabrielle?" He asked expectantly.
"Sheís awake. Sheíll be fine, she just needs some rest. But if I know Gabrielle, sheíll be up and out of that bed by morning." Xena said, a slight smile creasing the corners of her eyes. "How did we fare?"
Marmax allowed his eyes to drop slightly at the question. "Not good." He said, never looking up. "Out of my three division commanders, one was killed and one was wounded. Of those divisions, four brigade commanders were killed and another six were wounded. And as for the rest, well..." Marmax trailed off. "I just donít know if I have the men to promote to take their places."
Xena walked around the small table at which Marmax sat to look at the reports over his shoulder. From what she could see, Marmax had the necessary personnel, he just needed to reorganize it.
"Youíve got the men, you just need to reassign them. Here..." Xena said. For the next several minutes, she and the General moved officers from one unit to another, covering for the losses. When they had finished, Marmax felt certain that they could make do with the men they had placed.
"Well, that covers everything but this last division. I still donít have someone I can promote to lead them." Marmax said.
Xena could see the question that was coming and moved to head it off.
"No, Marmax." Xena said, shaking her head. "I told you before, Iíll advise you and Iíll fight at your side, but I wonít lead these men. Thatís not who I am anymore."
"Xena, please, I need you."
"Marmax, I wonít say it again. No." Xena said with conviction. "Isnít there some way you can reassign those units to other divisions?"
"Yes, I suppose I could, but that would place Athenians, Metoans, Corinthians, and Thessilians all in the same units. It could cause some tension between the men."
"Yeah well, thereís no time for that. These men understand that, I think. They should after what happened today." Xena said. "Marmax, we donít have enough men here to turn back the army thatís headed this way, you know that."
"I know. I dispatched messengers to the Thracians and the Macedonians as soon as we cleared the gorge, but Iím not sure if even they will be enough."
"There are others who could be persuaded to help us, if we send the right envoy." Xena commented.
"Who?" Marmax asked.
"Gabrielle is Queen of the Amazons, if she went to them and presented our present situation to the council, Iím sure she could convince them to join us." Xena said confidently. "And we have certain ties to the Centaurs. Perhaps we could convince them to join us as well."
"Queen huh?" Marmax said, laughing quietly to himself. "Well she can be very persuasive, when she wants to be. Not to mention it would get her away from the battlefield, eh Xena?"
The warrioress was a little taken aback at being read so easily, but quickly nodded her assent. "Iíll send a message to the Amazons that they are to keep her there, if they can. She needs time to recover and I donít want to expose her to any further danger here."
"I agree." Marmax replied. "All right, Iíll prepare an escort for her, if they head north for half a day before turning east toward the Amazon lands, they should be able to avoid the Horde army. Xena, with the Thracians, Macedonians, Amazons, and Centaurs fighting with us, we just might have a chance."
"Maybe. Now if we can just get them here in time." Xena said thoughtfully.
Marmax nodded silently, turning to look at the warrioress. "Xena, you look exhausted. Why donít you try to get some sleep."
Xena smiled a bit at the suggestion. "Only if you get some rest too."
The General started to protest, but then thought better of it. "Ok, ok. Iím going." He said as he climbed wearily to his feet. "Iíll see you in the morning, Xena."
"Night Marmax." Xena said as she turned to leave the room. The warrioress found herself once again in the arms of the cool night. She paused for a moment, taking a few deep breaths of the humid air. It had been one of the most difficult days of her life, the emotional hills and valleys leaving her feeling spent. Remembering her promise to Gabrielle, Xena set off in the direction of the marketplace once again to check on Lieutenant Maro.
It had taken nearly five hours, but Telmark had finally been able to extricate his army from the trap laid by the Greeks as they had fled the narrow defile before the onslaught of his superior forces. They had won the day, but had allowed the Greek army to escape, and that he could not permit. They had traveled until it was too dark to see, and then had made camp. Telmark had ordered that only the barest of essentials be broken out of the stores, he wanted little to repack in the morning so that they might resume their march on Corinth as soon as possible.
They had already lost precious time backtracking out of the small canyon and onto open ground. Now they were making their way slowly back the way they came. His scouts had reported that it would be nearly a full dayís march until they reached a point where he would be able to turn the army back to the north and resume his pursuit of the Greeks.
The news that the Chosen One had been sighted within the Greek camp had set the army buzzing with excitement. Telmark had waited until they had made camp, and then had sent for the man who had reported seeing her. Then he had sent for Pindego. It was Pindego who had first come in contact with the Chosen One back at the Athenian outpost, and only he who could confirm her presence here. Telmark looked up as the two warriors entered his quarters and came to stand before him.
"Oh Great and Powerful Telmark. We, your honored warriors answer your call."
"Come forward and be recognized." Telmark answered.
"Mishemo, warrior." They answered in turn.
"I recognize you Pindego, and you Mishemo. You may stand at ease."
The two warriors approached their leader and visibly relaxed.
"Now, first you, Mishemo, tell me what you saw in the Greek camp today." Telmark ordered.
The warrior took one step forward and began to tell his tale.
"Great Telmark, I entered their camp as I had been ordered by my commanding officer. As we broke through the lines, we fought our way to the center of the encampment, finding the headquarters tent, just where it was in all the other Greek camps." The warrior began. "We killed many Greek infidels as we entered the tent. There we faced a Greek soldier and a woman.
It was just as the prophets described. She faced us and defended herself. She was very courageous, sir, just as I knew she would be. I killed the Greek warrior with her and attempted to bring the Chosen One out with me. But I was unsuccessful." Mishemo said, casting his eyes downward. "The battle had been fierce and glorious, sir, I... I couldnít help myself..." The warrior hesitated, unsure of how to tell his Supreme Commander of his disgrace at what had happened next.
"We all know of the spell placed on a warrior by Kempoch before entering a battle. We have all felt it guiding us through a fight." Telmark said. "What happened? Why did you not reclaim the Chosen One for us?"
"She attacked me, sir. My battle lust was high, I just reacted. A blow from my weapon felled the Chosen One. I do not know if she lives." Mishemo confessed. "As I was attempting to bring her to you, her warrior woman protector entered the tent. It was all I could do to escape and bring this news to you."
Telmark considered the warriorís report for a minute before turning to face Pindego.
"Now, Pindego. I have heard the reports of your capture and interrogation. You alone have met the Chosen One. Could the woman Mishemo describes be her?"
"Great Telmark. It is true that I have seen the Greek woman. I have heard Mishemoís report, and I believe that she is the same woman I saw at the river outpost." Pindego replied.
"And do you believe her to be the Chosen One?" Telmark asked seriously.
Pindego paused, considering his words carefully. "Mighty Telmark, the priests of Arimon have questioned me at length on this. I am a loyal follower of Kempoch, my heart belongs to him. But I know of the prophecies." The warrior took a deep breath and blew it out. "She could be sir. If the prophets are to be believed, she is. I still wish to see her tested, as the prophecy describes, before I will believe, one way or the other."
"Thank you my honored warriors." Telmark said. "Mishemo, I will reserve any punishment until it can be determined if the Chosen One lives or not. You are both dismissed."
The two warriors stiffened to attention, saluted, then turned and strode from the hut, leaving Telmark alone with his thoughts. If the Chosen One is dead, this may all be for nothing. We must know for sure. Telmark thought to himself. The warrior shook his head and made a decision. He summoned Sidon to his hut and ordered him to take a small patrol and scout the Greek city. His instructions were simple, find any sign of the Chosen One, dead or alive. Sidon left at once, taking Pindego with him to positively identify her. Then Telmark sent for a priest of Arimon. He needed to know more about this prophecy.
Making his way slowly through the Horde encampment, the priest was given a wide berth. The men knew of the need to have him there for his skill at healing, but they didnít have to like it. The men treated him with fear and mistrust, and he did nothing to dissuade their perceptions. Moving silently, his long robes billowing slightly behind him, his cowl disguising his face, the priest turned and entered Telmarkís hut.
The Horde commander came to his feet as the dark, enigmatic figure entered his chamber. It was known that in order to become a priest of Arimon, one had to display an ability to prophesy the future. Those who could were often treated as outcasts, only finding a place among the Temples of Arimon. The myths told of men able to see into the depths of warriorsí heart, a scrutiny most did not enjoy.
Telmark felt the familiar feel of fear well up inside him as the priest approached, but he forced it from his mind. He was the Supreme Commander now. He had nothing to fear except failure. And in this, he would not fail.
"You summoned me, Great Telmark. I am here."
"Come, sit. Thereís a report of a sighting of the Chosen One within the Greek camp." Telmark said, gesturing to a chair to the right of his raised dais.
"We must recover her." The priest said, seating himself in the chair he had been offered, his eyes lighting up at the news. "She belongs here, with the priests of Arimon."
"Before I can do that, I need to know more about the Chosen One. What can you tell me about the prophecy that could help us?" Telmark asked.
The priest took a deep breath and then began. "According to the sacred texts of Arimon, the Chosen One is a strange woman of courage and self sacrifice. Up until now, we had assumed that strange meant different, yet still Horde, but it would appear that might not be the case. This woman would be a true follower of the teachings of Arimon, putting the welfare of the injured warriors on the battlefield before her own personal safety. She will enter the battlefield and all will become still and silent. The drums of war will hold as she brings her healing touch to those in need." The priest relayed, capturing Telmarkís attention.
"The enemy will fall under her spell, not daring to raise a weapon against the power of the Chosen One. And when all those who are in need have been healed by her touch, she will fade to the shadows until her Horde brethren need her once again. When she is seen again, she will have come to us, but she will not recognize those sent to bring her home, lashing out at her brothers and sisters, seeing only an enemy. She has been an outcast for so long, nothing is familiar to her. When you do find her she will not come willingly, only by force will she be brought here.
If one is found and is thought to be the Chosen One of Arimon, she is to be cleansed of her former self in a sacred ritual performed by the High Priests of the Temple. Then and only then may she be judged by Arimon." The priest paused in his narrative, unsure of just how much he should reveal to the commander.
"The ritual is to be performed one full day after she has been returned to her true people, and by the time the moon rises, Arimon will have made his decision known to his prophets. If she passes this test, she will be presented to the people as their Chosen One, who will lead them down the path to honor, glory, and prosperity." The priest concluded.
Telmark pondered what he had been told. Much of it he remembered from the preachings he had heard as a young man, and unfortunately he had heard nothing new to help him in his quest to bring the Chosen One home.
"Is there anything I can do? Am I to just sit by and wait for her to come to me?"
"According to the prophecy, if she is the Chosen One, she will find us. But the prophecy says nothing about helping her find us." The priest replied, his eyebrows raised suggestively.
"What are you saying, priest?"
"All I am saying is that perhaps you could help her to find us. A well placed patrol near to the Greek city to watch for her, maybe? She ventured from an outpost once before to tend the wounded. Perhaps sheíll do it again. And if she does leave the city, she may just find our patrol. But that is only a suggestion, of course."
Telmark sat deep in thought, torn between allowing the prophecy to just happen and helping it to happen.
"Thank you, wise priest of Arimon. I will consider what you have said and will inform you of any further developments. You may go."
The priest bowed ever so slightly at the waist and left the hut as silently as he had come. The people needed their Chosen One, but so did the prophets of Arimon. The cult had been steadily losing followers and power to those who worshipped Kempoch, but now it was their time. With the discovery of the Chosen One, many had returned, more devout than before. The High Priests of Arimon could sense their power and influence growing and intended to exploit this opportunity. The Greek woman would pass the judgement of Arimon, one way or the other.
It had been nearly a full day since their flight out of the cut to Corinth. The city had welcomed all the warriors with open arms, well, almost all of them. Xena had confined herself to the wall defenses and the hospital since their arrival, knowing that the citizens of Corinth who remembered the war she had waged there would not be welcoming her back into their city. So the warrioress had immersed herself in the preparations for the coming attack. The scouts had reported that the Horde army was on the move again, and would arrive at the gates of the city a little more than a day. They didnít have much time.
Xena had just left Marmaxís command post and was now making her way toward the hospital to check on Gabrielle. She found the young woman sitting among the wounded men, happily telling stories to her rather appreciative audience. Xena later learned that Gabrielle had spent most of her morning making the rounds through the men, telling tales, making the men laugh, taking their minds off their pain. Soon the word had spread outside the hospital that an amazing storyteller was putting on performances in the wards, and by midmorning Gabrielle was not only performing for the wounded, but also for the men who wandered in from their quarters after taking their turn on guard at the wall.
The young bard had recovered fairly quickly from her wounds, but was still a little shaky on her feet. And so, Xena had hovered around Gabrielle for most of the afternoon, until the storyteller had finally had enough. After finishing yet another rendition of how Xena had defeated Posiedon and freed Cecrops, from his curse, Gabrielle cornered the Warrior Princess just out of earshot of the men.
"Xena, why donít you get out of here for a while? Go check on Marmax or something." Gabrielle said, trying to keep control of her exasperation. "Youíre driving me crazy! And youíre making these men nervous."
"Gabrielle, I donít need to check on Marmax...hey..." Xena began, and then paused as she realized just what the bard had said. "What do you mean Iím driving you crazy?" Xena asked, her eyes narrowing.
"Xena, you havenít stopped pacing this room since you got here." Gabrielle explained. "Iím fine, really." She said gently. "You donít need to watch over me every minute."
"Yeah, well I didnít watch over you closely enough yesterday, and I nearly..." Xena began, but then stopped suddenly. No Xena, donít want to go there now, do you? She thought to herself. Damn, too late, weíre there.
Gabrielle slowly came and stood in front of the Warrior Princess, forcing Xena to look at her.
"Xena," Gabrielle said quietly. "Xena you canít protect me from everything. I know that and I accept it. And I think itís time that you did to." Gabrielle stared into the ice blue eyes that now gazed into her own, trying to read the emotions that lay behind them.
"Gabrielle, I donít think you do understand." Xena said. "Do you realize just how close you came yesterday?"
"Xena, I do understand, really. And I know exactly how close it was yesterday. But eventually, one day, you wonít be there. And Iíll have to face the world on my own, and accept whatever consequences that will bring. And you will have to live with those consequences, just like I will." Gabrielle replied.
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but simply could not frame the words in her mind. Gabrielle had attempted to remove from her all the responsibility she felt, all the protectiveness, and had nearly succeeded. But she hadnít taken it away totally. There would still be a part of her that felt responsible for everything that Gabrielle had suffered through, and would suffer through in the future, for she knew in her heart that there would be more trials, for the both of them. Not the least of which was now only a dayís march away.
Xena drew a deep breath, "Gabrielle, I know that you can handle just about anything. All Iím saying is that a part of me will always feel responsible for you, will always want to protect you, with my life if I have to."
The bardís eyes softened at Xenaís words and she at first didnít know what to say.
"I know you feel responsible for me. Just remember that I make my own decisions, and I accept the risks, just as you do."
Xena nodded slightly, "Iíll try, Gabrielle." Xena paused, unsure how to phrase what she had to say next, knowing that Gabrielle would see it as sending her away, but also knowing the journey she was sending the bard on was so very vital. If it didnít mean the difference between life and death for the allied army here in Corinth, she would have never asked her to go, concerned that the trip may be too much for the bard after her injury the day before. In the end Xena had no choice, they desperately needed reinforcements.
"Gabrielle, you know that I understand what youíve said, and I also understand that you need to make your own decisions, so please, donít take what Iím going to ask of you the wrong way."
"OK." Gabrielle said, confused by the warrioressí cryptic speech. "What do you want to ask me?"
"Gabrielle, we need you to leave the city and go to the Amazons." Xena began, but stopped when she saw the hurt look on Gabrielleís face. "Believe me, Gabrielle, Iím not doing this because of yesterday..." Xena paused, now was not the time to hold anything back. She needed to be completely honest with the young Amazon. "Ok, Iím not doing this only because of yesterday. Gabrielle, the Horde a little more than a day from here. With the forces we have and the city defenses, Marmax and I figure we have maybe a week before the Horde will simply overwhelm us, march in here, and destroy everything. We need reinforcements and we need them soon. The Amazons and Centaurs are only a day and a half hard ride from here." Xena could see the beginnings of understanding on Gabrielleís face.
"Gabrielle, you are still their Queen, you proved that against Arleia and her followers. The Amazons respect you, but more than that, theyíll follow you. And if Ephiny can convince Tyldus and the Centaurs to join us, we may just have a chance."
Gabrielle turned away from Xena and allowed her words to sink in. She could sense the truth in what Xena had said, but was still reluctant to leave. It still felt too much like abandoning Xena to face the horrors of the Horde alone. In the end, Gabrielle knew what she had to do.
"Iíll go." The bard said softly, and could almost hear an audible sigh of relief from the warrioress behind her. Gabrielle turned to face Xena. "When should I leave?"
"Just as soon as Marmax can arrange for an escort for you." Xena replied. "Gabrielle, are you sure youíre up to the trip? I know I asked you to go, but if you donít think that you can..." Xena began, but was cut off with a wave.
"Iíll be fine. Donít worry, Iíll take it easy. I promise."
"Gabrielle, you had better keep this promise." Xena said, a wry grin tugging at the corners of her mouth, but the bard could see the deadly seriousness behind those liquid blue eyes. "Come on, letís go get you ready to travel."
Gabrielle smiled in response as they headed off in the direction of the kiosk where she had spent the night.
An hour later, Gabrielle stood outside the stables, hanging on to the reins of a cinnamon colored mare. Her traveling pouch hung from the saddlehorn, her staff tucked safely within easy reach in a saddlebag, Gabrielle was ready to depart. Marmax had sent out a call for volunteers to escort Gabrielle to the Amazon lands, and had been frankly quite surprised at the overwhelming response. In less than half a day, most of the allied army had either heard one of Gabrielleís stories or heard his companions talking about them, and were enamored of the young bard. It was not cowardice that drove the men to volunteer. Many of the older soldiers saw Gabrielle as a younger sister that they wanted to keep safe, the younger men saw a beautiful young woman. In the end, it had been Xena who had made the final selection.
The warrioress had chosen a rather diverse group of two Athenians and a Metoan. Among them was Diomedes, who had been the first to volunteer. Xena felt that she could trust Diomedes, he wasnít the typical Athenian infantryman. He was educated and a good soldier, from what Marmax had been able to gather, and, more importantly, Gabrielle knew him and trusted him. She had also chosen a Metoan soldier Marmax had personally recommended. Pelias had been a Sergeant in the Metoan infantry for nearly 10 years, and his service spoke for itself. Marmax himself had twice decorated him for bravery in action. Rounding out the detail was a second Athenian, Pylades, who had also served his unit and Athens for many faithful years. Pylades was a skilled bowman, and Xena felt that if they were forced at some point to fight, it would be better to have someone there who could kill at a distance.
The warrioress still felt uneasy at sending Gabrielle out while she was still recovering from her head wound, but to delay would risk that they might be sighted by a Horde scouting party and captured or killed. So really, she had no choice. Xena strode purposefully to stand next to Gabrielle. The young bard turned at the sound of her approach.
"Gabrielle, be sure you head north for at least half a day before you turn toward Amazonia, ok?" Xena said.
"I will." Gabrielle replied.
"And try to keep everyone together."
"And donít take any chances, if you see any Horde warriors take cover, donít try to take them on."
"I wonít, Xena."
"And..." Xena started, but Gabrielle brought her to a stop.
"Xena, Iíll be careful, I promise. You promise to be careful too."
Xena sighed. "I promise." She said simply. "Here, this is for Ephiny to take to Tyldus and the Centaurs." Xena said, handing Gabrielle a small scroll. Gabrielle accepted it, turning to tuck it securely into her saddlebag. Keeping her back to the warrioress, Gabrielle drew in a deep breath, "Stay safe, Xena, please."
Xena was touched by the whispered plea and reached out to take Gabrielle by the shoulders and slowly turn her around to face her. Xena paused a moment to simply look at Gabrielle, as if trying to memorize her face. It could be weeks before they saw each other again, if Ephiny was able to keep Gabrielle within the Amazon village and out of the reach of the Horde army. Gabrielle was not used to such frank scrutiny by the Warrior Princess and it brought a sudden fear to the surface.
"What?" The bard asked. "Why are you looking at me like that, Xena?"
The warrioress shook herself, suddenly aware that she had been staring.
"Nothing. I just..." Oh Hades, why canít I ever say the right thing? "Just be well, Gabrielle. Be well and be safe."
"I will, Xena. Iíll see you soon." Gabrielle replied smiling gently, placing her hands on Xenaís waist. The warrioress pulled the bard in for a deep hug, wrapping her arms around her shoulders and squeezing her fiercely, feeling Gabrielleís arms tighten around her reflexively. After a few moments, Xena pulled back slightly.
"Iíll see you soon." She said, reaching down to give Gabrielle a leg up into the saddle.
"Ugh. Now I remember why I hate riding horses." Gabrielle remarked. "Why canít they be closer to the ground?"
Xena chuckled slightly at the comment as she turned to face the rest of the small company.
"You all know how important this is. Good luck." Xena said, surveying the solemn faces before her.
The rest of the detail mounted up and swung their horses toward the waiting gates, Sergeant Pelias in the lead, followed by Pylades and Gabrielle, Diomedes remained to the rear of the column. As they moved forward, Xena reached out to grab the reins of Diomedesí mount.
"I know weíve had this discussion before, and you know what Iím going to say." Xena said in a low voice. "Iím counting on you to keep her safe, Diomedes. Donít let me down."
Diomedes nodded gravely. "Iíll defend her with my own life if necessary, Xena. You have my word on that."
Xena nodded once in response, releasing the reins and allowing Diomedes to resume his place at the back of the procession. She could feel it twisting her stomach, the feeling of dread as she watched Gabrielle disappear from view. Xena tried to push the feeling from her mind, but it was to no avail. The feelings only grew in intensity as the gates to the city were closed behind the small company.
Artemis, protect her. Xena prayed silently, not knowing quite what else to do; she then turned and headed for the command post where Marmax was meeting with his new commanders to plan the last minute defenses for the city. The Horde army was only a day away, and they needed to be ready for them.
THE BATTLE FOR CORINTH: THE FIRST DAY
The preparations for the defense of the city had begun as soon as the army had passed within its walls. Now with the Horde army sighted a mere half a days march from the outer walls, the last minute details were being attended to, under Xena and Marmaxís watchful eyes. Xena had spent her every waking hour making the rounds through the cityís defenses, talking to the men, reassuring them when she could. They seemed to draw courage just from her presence, something she didnít really expect. The warrioress was so used to seeing fear in the faces that she encountered, this look of almost adoration was something she had not even seen in the eyes of the men who had served in her armies. Now she felt the weight of their expectations, knew they were looking to her as much as to Marmax to lead them to victory over the menace just hours away.
The men had been placed in a state of constant readiness ever since the advance scouts had reported sighting the Horde army. Now the tension within the city hung like a shroud. Everyone knew what was expected of them, knew their duty. The civilians had all been moved deep within the center of the city, where hopefully they would be safe. Those with any experience at healing had been pressed into service at the marketplace in the makeshift hospital. And still, Xena knew it was not enough. It would only be a matter of time before the Horde was able to wear them down and break through their defenses.
The warrioress let her mind drift to Gabrielle, worry still burrowing itís way into her heart. She had been so very weak when she had left the city, weaker than she had let on, and yet she had left without a comment, determined to reach the Amazons and Centaurs in time. Xena found herself becoming distracted with her musings, wishing that she could somehow know how the young bard was faring, know that she was well.
Sheíll try to come back here, I know her, all too well. Ephiny, you had better keep her there, if you know whatís good for you. Xena thought ruefully. Ah well, maybe sheíll be able to delay Gabrielle, at least for a few days. Perhaps by then the worst of it will be over. Maybe.
Xena climbed the steps leading to the top of the battlements, gazing out over the plain that stretched off into the deep burgundy sunset. Theyíll come, and soon. Theyíll wait for nightfall thatís what Iíd do. Attack just after full dark, then theyíll come in force. Xenaís thoughts were interrupted by a presence near her, and she turned to face him.
"Marmax." The warrioress said simply.
"Xena." The General returned. "Theyíre close. Very, very close. What are they waiting for?"
"Theyíre waiting for dark. Attacking after dark will disguise their numbers and we wonít be able to tell what direction theyíre coming from until itís too late. Be sure the sentries keep a sharp eye, we need to have as much warning as possible."
Marmax nodded solemnly in acknowledgement. "Done. Where will you be?"
"Here or at the command hut. If we can hold off this first attack, we might just have a chance at holding until reinforcements arrive."
"I know. Iíll be on my rounds if you need me." Marmax commented as he slowly climbed down, making his way through the darkness to check on his men. He often did this, the eve before a battle, knowing that this would be the last time he saw some of these men. The thought saddened him, but it came with the life he had chosen, and he had accepted it long ago.
Xena watched him go before turning her attention back to the sprawling plain. Come on, come and get me! Her mind cried out defiantly. Iím ready for you. Are you ready for me?
The attack began shortly after full dark, just as Xena had predicted. It began as a low rumble that could be felt all throughout the city. Thousands upon thousands of Horde warriors tramping their feet in bloodthirsty excitement, exhilarated at the prospect of the forthcoming battle. The beat their breasts in rhythm with their feet, their polished and sharpened weapons at the ready. Under the cover of darkness, they came, wave upon wave of churning bodies. They remembered the shame of their defeat at the cut, and now were nearly mad with desire for revenge. Once within sight of the walls of the city, they loosed their battle cries, filling the night air with a howl that seemed to come straight from Tartarus.
Many of the men who manned the walls were convinced after hearing the sound that they were dead already, struck down by the gods themselves. Fear rooting them in place, they could not move, but simply stared in horror at the scene before them. The light from the moon cast an unearthly glow over the battlefield as the Horde warriors drew ever closer, their howls rising to a crescendo. Then suddenly, there was silence, and the men on the walls felt their hearts race in expectation of the coming assault.
And with one feral roar, they rushed the walls en masse. First with simply their bodies, then with battering rams, they threw themselves at the sturdy gates to the city. Hundreds died in the first wave, slain by the expert bows of the Athenian archers, and still they came. Using the bodies of the dead to boost themselves, they began to scale the walls. Too close for archers, the swordsmen moved forward to meet the assault, driving back the first of the Horde warriors to gain the tops of the walls. The dead were tossed back down on top of their compatriots, crushing those at the bottom under the weight of their bodies.
Some did manage to reach the top of the walls and stood to fight hand to hand with the allies. The fighting was fierce and bloody, many allied soldiers fell to the ferocious slashes of the Horde battle axes, the cries of the dying now joining the howling of the Horde in a terrible cacophony.
Never before had Xena seen such savage combat. Fighting alongside the men on the wall, her sword was soon covered in Horde blood, her face contorted into a mask of rage and exhilaration. Nothing but battle had ever made her feel this way, like she was truly alive. And yet still on the edge of life, taunting Celesta, taunting death. It was intoxicating, and she drank it in, letting her darker side out. The Lioness of Amphipolis was loosed, her claws ripping and tearing through the ranks of the Horde soldiers who clamored over the wall. She alone drove back tens of warriors, killing even more. Disjointed from conscious thought, she allowed her sword to dictate her path, following it through itís dance of death.
Then it ended, if only for a moment. The Horde pulled back slightly to reform and come again. The men on the wall drew deep and ragged breaths, amazed they were still alive, readying themselves for the next attack. Marmax took a brief inventory of their losses. Minimal, considering what the Horde had thrown at them.
"Be ready men! Theyíll be back!" Marmax shouted, his voice rough. He allowed his gaze to seek out Xena, and found her tending to a wounded soldier who had fallen near her. The General approached her, shocked at the look in her eyes. The look of barely controlled ferocity and animal instinct to kill, it lit her eyes with an energy like he had never seen before.
"Xena? Are you ok?"
The warrioress drew a breath to calm herself before answering. "Fine. How many did we lose?"
"The losses were what we had expected. The lines are holding. They werenít able to get through the gates."
"Good." Xena replied as she turned back to the man at her feet. "This man needs a healer. Not much else I can do for him here."
"Iíll get someone to take him to the marketplace." Marmax said as he gestured to the nearest soldier. "Take this man to the market and report back here for stretcher detail. Make sure all the wounded are taken to the healers. Is that understood?"
"Yes, General." The soldier replied, sheathing his sword and stooping to lift the wounded man onto his back.
"Here they come!" The cry drew their attention back to the plain below. The Horde had reassembled their lines and was now charging back for another attack. Only the bodies of their dead countrymen slowed them as they trampled the bodies in reckless abandon, their drive to reach the wall rendering them heedless to all else.
Again the Horde soldiers threw themselves at the walls, using the uneven surface of the stone to scale it to the top. Yet again the archers cut them down as they attempted to reach the walls, but their numbers were simply too great. Now the pikemen were brought forward, launching their deadly missiles straight down the walls into the mass of bodies below, killing two and three at a time, and still they came. Their numbers seemingly endless, the allies began to despair. How can there be so many? Weíll never stop them all! They thought, unable to quell the feelings of defeat.
The Horde seemed to sense their sentiment. It was as if the Horde army was some great beast that gathered itself up and launched toward the city gates, pummeling it with such intensity that it seemed for a moment that they could not withstand the onslaught. Then Xena was there, in the thick of the fight to hold the gates, leading the men by her example as she grasped the kettles of hot oil placed in readiness and tipped them over onto the heads of the warriors attempting to break through the gates below. The howls that now reached their ears were of pain and furor as the Horde was driven back yet again.
The battle still raged on the tops of the walls and Xena raced to join it, her sword flashing in the ghostly pale light of the moon. Those who would live to see the morning swore she was a goddess, come to earth, for no mortal could have fought as she.
For hours the battle raged, and now the allies were dying in the hundreds along with their enemies, their bodies littering the narrow parapets and the ground below. And still the Horde came, in wave after unending wave. And when it seemed that it might never end, the Horde pulled back yet again, this time far enough to be out of the reach of the Athenian long bows.
"They keep coming...how long are they going to just keep coming." The men muttered among themselves. "Too many, just too many..."
Marmax could see the look of frustration in their faces and knew that something had to give and soon. They couldnít take too much more of this. He ordered that the reserve troops held below in the interior of the city be brought forward to strengthen the units on the walls, he only hoped it would be enough. He found Xena there unexpectedly at his side.
"Theyíve got to be running out of energy soon, they canít keep scaling that wall over and over."
"Youíre right." Xena agreed. "Theyíll probably hit us once more tonight, itís getting light. Dawn will be here soon and they wonít have the cover of darkness anymore." She suddenly tensed next to him. "Here they come again, Marmax, get the men ready. If we can force them back this time, it may be enough, at least for today."
The General turned to go, but was brought up short by Xenaís hand on his arm. "No, wait. Use the smoke. It may confuse them just enough to give us an advantage."
Marmax nodded and turned issuing orders to his officers around him. By the time the wave of Horde warriors reached the walls, the smoke bombs had been lit and were now pouring over the walls, filling the air with an acrid fog that hid the movements of the men atop the walls. The archers used the cover to move into position, unseen and out of the range of the Horde battle-axes, they loosed their arrows in a deadly rush, hearing the satisfying thwap of the missiles as they found their marks. They simply needed to fire, no real aim was needed, since the Horde was everywhere.
Enraged by the smoke and still dying by the hundreds, the last wave of Horde soldiers never made it as far as the wall before retreating back into the mists as the dawn broke over their heads, the first rays of the new day shining in amber and gold. As the men of the allied army slowly realized the assault was over, their joy knew no bounds. They were still alive, they had won the day. A cry of victory rolled over the city as the citizens of Corinth tentatively emerged from their hiding places, amazed their city was still standing. The sounds of battle had been terrible, and they felt sure that by morning they would all be dead. But they had survived, and they thanked the gods for sparing them.
Now came the grizzly task of caring for the wounded and lighting the pyres for the dead. Marmax organized the details to see to the wounded and dispose of the dead. Now was no time for sentiment, there would be time to mourn later, when their enemy had been driven from their lands.
Xena found herself still standing atop the battlements, her sword still in her hand. The haze of her battle lust was now fading, but her heart was still pounding within her chest, the excitement and thrill of battle still with her; she fought for calm. Closing her eyes and taking several deep and steadying breaths, Xena finally found that center of calm in the turmoil of her soul and rested there. When she opened her eyes again, the warrioress felt that she could now face the rest of this day.
Bending to retrieve a discarded piece of cloth, she slowly and carefully cleaned the blood from her sword before sliding it back into its sheath. She turned to look at the destruction the battle had caused. The Horde had managed to loosen the gates from their housing, but they had held, and already a team was at work reinforcing them. The tops of the battlements were scarred from the constant pounding by the Horde battle axes and scorched from the oil and barrels that had been released over the sides during the fighting.
All in all, they had been lucky. The Horde had been forced back, and that was all that mattered. We just may have a sliver of a chance...just maybe. Xena quietly mused, allowing the first rays of hope enter her mind. Now they had to prepare for the next attack, knowing it could come at any time.
Xena made her way to the food tent, aware that she needed to eat, needed to keep up her strength above all else at the moment. She gathered a meager breakfast and returned to her quarters to relax for a few hours before joining Marmax and assisting in the planning for the next assault.
The warrioress sank onto her cot, eating almost mechanically, not tasting the food, simply consuming it. The battle had been intense, and she was conscious of just how much of her former self had surfaced during the course of the fighting. It had been difficult to keep that part of her soul at bay, especially without Gabrielleís presence there beside her. Until now, Xena had not realized just how much the bard worked as a calming influence on her, and she worried just how much of her hard won inner calm she might lose without Gabrielle there with her. The barriers she had placed on the rage and darkness now seemed tenuous at best. The feelings of exhilaration during the battle had felt so good, too good.
Xena examined that thought for a moment. It had felt good, the flow of blood through her hands, the blood of her enemies running in rivers around her feet. She had forgotten how much her dark side reveled in those feelings, and it terrified her. Xena was never one to admit to fear, but this time was different. The Horde always seemed to bring out the worst in her, and now she was on her own facing it. She nearly lost herself to the hate and pain the Horde brought out in her the last time they faced each other in battle. If not for Gabrielle's example to show her the way, Xena may have lost herself completely. She had been beside herself seeing the young bard at the hands of the Horde, certain that this time Gabrielle may lose her life. Then had come the miracle, she had lived. And not only lived, but also triumphed over the barriers of language and custom that had prevented Xena from seeing the Horde as they truly were, a race bound by honor and ceremony similar to the Greeks themselves.
Xena was tired, wearier than she had been in many weeks, and knew that she could rest but a few short hours before she would be needed to help plan the defense for the next attack. She slowly and painfully removed her armor, her aching muscles making the task difficult and she found herself wishing once again for Gabrielle. The bard's steady sure hands helping to remove the armor that was more like a second skin, but now had become laden with the memories of the battle, and the dead. It seemed almost too heavy for her to lift from her shoulders.
Xena set the armor aside, vowing to clean it later, once she had rested for a while. She slowly lowered herself down onto the pallet, closing her eyes almost the instant her head touched the pillow, she was asleep in moments. But sleep did not bring peace to the warrioress, and dreams of the day's battle plagued her.
She saw herself once more atop the battlements of the walls surrounding Corinth, only now Gabrielle also fought at her side. The bard held back the advancing Horde warriors with skill and confidence, her staff weaving in and out slashing through her attackers. Xena suddenly became aware that she could no longer move, her dream holding her tightly in its grasp. She was mildly surprised that no one attacked her, but seemed to be focusing completely on the bard, ignoring the now helpless warrior.
Xena could feel the fear beginning to rise within her as the Horde warriors began to overwhelm Gabrielle, closing in on the bard from all sides. Xena could feel the fear bubbling up within her heart as the attackers moved in on the bard, and yet she could do nothing. Even her voice failed her as she attempted to call out to Gabrielle, but no sound was issued forth from her mouth. It was at once infuriating and terrifying as she watched helplessly as Gabrielle was swallowed up by the Horde warriors surrounding her.
Xena could hear the bard's plaintive cries as she was carried away. Xena felt as though she were drowning, her throat constricting in rage as Gabrielle's voice pierced the air around them both, calling out her friend's name, calling out for Xena to save her.
But she could not.
Just when it seemed that Xena could bear it no longer, she jerked awake, disoriented. Drenched in sweat, her heart pounding in her ears, her breath coming in short gasps, Xena came fully awake, and only then did she realize it had all been a terrible dream. But it had seemed so real. She could still feel Gabrielle's terror as though it were her own, and a sense of dread settled into the pit of her stomach. She had had nightmares before, but none quite so vivid, or quite so terrifying. The warrioress took several deep breaths and attempted to calm the rapid beating of her heart.
Easy, that's it. It was only a dream, right? Xena told herself, but she still couldn't shake that feeling of dread, the feelings of fear coursing through her.
Xena rose carefully to her feet and splashing some cool water on her face, she retrieved her weapons and armor and headed for the command hut. She knew that sleep would be nearly impossible now, and hoped to dispel the memories of her dream by working on the defense for the city. Afterall, it was just a dream. Wasn't it?