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THE FIRST DAY OF BATTLE
It had been nearly a full cycle of the moon since Telmark had made his announcement that they would pursue the Chosen One and bring her back among her Horde brethren. Since that time, messengers had been dispatched to all the Horde warriors wherever they may be ordering them to converge approximately one dayís journey north of the Greek city of Corinth. Two weeks after the message went out, the men began arriving until now they numbered nearly 30,000.
Telmark had met with his commanders on several occasions to plan their strategy for conquering the Greeks and recovering the Chosen One. The battle plan was simple, they knew from experience that the One traveled with a warrior woman of some skill, so Telmark had ordered that they systematically attack every Greek city south of their current position, starting with Corinth. They would work their way through the Greek countryside, hoping to draw the Chosen One and her warrior toward them. If the prophecies were true, the Chosen One would find them.
Until that fateful day at the Athenian outpost, Telmark had never put much faith in the prophecies. He had heard the tales since he was a small boy, recited faithfully by the priests of the Temple of Arimon the God of Prophecy and Healing. For hundreds of years his people had waited for the coming of the Chosen One, a woman with singular courage and vision to lead them forward into the future. But Telmark had difficulty, even as a child, in putting his faith in a fantastic Chosen One, choosing rather to follow the edicts of Kempoch, the God of War.
The priests of Kempoch preached of the power of the one, the power of self to reign over all. They preached to look within and find Kempoch in the warriorís heart that beat within the chest of every Horde man. The priests of Kempoch had long argued the validity of the prophecy of the Chosen One with the priests of Arimon, and that argument had divided the Horde people for several years. It wasnít until the last two years that the followers of Arimon had begun to lose faith in the Chosen One. Months of drought and the recent deaths of the women and children at the hands of the Greeks had convinced many of the faithful that the Chosen One would never come to deliver them from this torture, never carry them to the future. It was then that the ranks of Kempochís followers had grown considerably.
But now, with the possible discovery of the true Chosen One of the prophecy, all of that had changed. The former followers of Arimon now began to have faith in their patron god once again, causing the old strife to come to the forefront once again. Telmark was faced with the daunting task of pleasing both sides of the argument, and knew that the only way to do so, was to bring the Greek woman to his people so that her true worth might be discovered. The prophecy described a ritual cleansing, where all that she had been would be washed away, leaving only her true soul in place. It was that soul that would be tested and judged as that of the Chosen One.
Telmark was unconcerned with the mechanics of the prophecy, right now his only worry was finding her and bringing her here. Now that his entire force was gathered and ready, Telmark had ordered that they begin their march on Corinth. That was a day ago, and they had covered perhaps a quarter the distance to the city when his advance scouts had reported sighting a Greek army entrenched in the only pass from their current position leading to the city. To avoid them would mean adding precious days onto their march backtracking and working their way around the entrenched army.
Telmark had immediately called a halt in their advance to send out a more sizeable scouting force to determine the exact strength of the Greek army. That reconnaissance information had just been delivered to him and he was about to join his commanders to discuss their options.
As Telmark entered the hut, his commanders all came to their feet and saluted, standing at attention until he had made his way to his chair and seated himself. His men relaxed, but remained standing out of respect for their leader. Telmark waved them to their seats as he revealed what he had learned of the Greek position.
"Be seated, honored warriors of Kempoch. The scouts have reported that the Greeks have taken up position in the cut north of the city, perhaps half a dayís journey from here. They have two regiments posted on the ridges surrounding the area and what appears to be at least a division of men at the center." Telmark paused to gauge the reaction of his men. They were all looking to him expectantly, and he could see the excitement in their eyes. This was what the warriors of Kempoch lived for, the glory of battle against their mortal enemies.
"We will march on their position at first light. Two divisions led by Sidon will attack the ridge positions to distract them from the main force, which will attack the center. I will be leading the main attack." Telmark said.
"Tomorrow we march into battle for the glory of Kempoch and the honor of our people!" Telmark said forcefully. "Now, see to your men. I want all in readiness by nightfall."
Telmarkís men rose to their feet as one, saluted and left the hut, leaving the leader alone with his thoughts. The Greeks had managed to gather an impressive force to meet him and his warriors, but he had faith in Kempoch and in his men. They would defeat the Greeks and reclaim their Chosen One. He still wasnít sure if he truly believed in the prophecy, but if there was a chance that this woman could help his people, then he would risk anything to bring her to them.
His strategy was simply to do what the Greeks would not expect. Telmarkís predecessors had always attacked their enemies head on, in full force, but he had other ideas, radical ideas. Telmark had observed the Greeks and their battle tactics on more than one occasion and had seen the effectiveness of attacking the flanks to draw men away from the center of the lines, he only hoped that this tactic could work for his troops as well. No, those Greek fools will expect us to only attack the center, as we always have in the past. It will work. It must. Telmark rose and approached the shrine in the corner of his hut. Surrounding the traditional figurine of Kempoch were several candles, both lit and unlit.
Telmark reached for a small candle standing by itself off to the side of the shrine. As his hand closed around itís waxy surface, Telmark could feel the stirrings of his warrior blood. He spoke aloud the prayers of those about to enter into battle and prayed to Kempoch for strength and guidance in the coming days and he prayed that he might bring glory to Kempoch and victory to his people.
Telmark allowed himself to relax as the priests had taught him, to allow the spirits of the honored dead to flow through him, lending him the wisdom of their experience and their strength. As he recited the mantras silently to himself, he could feel the souls of those long dead warriors coming to join him. The Horde leader took one deep cleansing breath, then another, opening his mind to those who sought contact with him. He could feel their energy flowing through him, but something was different this time. He had performed this ritual several times in the past, but tonight it felt even more powerful, more stimulating.
At once Telmark knew to his very core what was happening. It is Kempoch! He has come to me! Telmark thought, as he struggled to maintain his trance. Kempoch, come to me, I beseech you. Guide my hand that I may serve you! Suddenly Telmark felt as though his entire body was attuned to the forces around him as he sensed the presence of the great God of War. It was like nothing the prophets had ever described, as the Godís spirit filled Telmarkís mind.
Telmark, leader of my honored warriors. I have come to you, to guide your hand in crushing the Greek vermin! Telmark could sense the words rather than hear them, but the images were as clear as if the God were standing before him speaking as any mortal man would.
I am but your humble servant, O Great Kempoch. Guide me in what I must do to free my people from their tyranny. Telmark replied.
You will face them at daybreak, Telmark. Your strategy is a sound one. You will not fail. You will defeat them in battle.
Telmarkís heart swelled with the thought of defeating the Greeks, once and for all, but the God of War perceived his pride and quickly dispelled it.
Do not be overconfident, Telmark. Your victory tomorrow is not secure. But know that I will be with you. Long live the Horde! And with a rush, the God left him. Telmarkís eyes snapped open suddenly, his heart pounding in his ears, his breathing ragged. The Great Kempoch had bestowed his blessings on him and this campaign and he vowed not to fail him.
Telmark rose from the altar and made his way into the dark cloak of night that surrounded the camp. He moved among his warriors, watching them as they performed ritual cleansing before battle, honed their weapons to a sharp edge, and adorned their faces with the bright colors meant to instill fear in the hearts of their enemies. The patterns of the markings on each warriorís face had been revealed to him in a daylong ceremony that marked the passage from boyhood to manhood, and acceptance into the tribe as a warrior. Unique to each man, the last act before a battle was to apply this pattern to his face as he prepared himself for the battle that could take him into the waiting arms of Kempoch, and into the legions of the honored dead.
Telmark knew what these men were capable of, and he only hoped that he would prove strong enough to lead them tomorrow. Doubt would always tease at the corners of the warriorís heart. He wanted nothing more than to free his people from the Greek incursion and fulfill the wishes of Kempoch.
Xena and Gabrielle had returned to their tent, where Xena had explained that the Horde had been sighted only a few hours away. They both knew what was going to happen in the morning, and neither knew what to say.
"Gabrielle, Marmax has a position for you on his command staff, helping to read messages from the front lines and then passing them along with only the most important information." Xena said, unsure of the bardís reaction. She was doing it again, treating Gabrielle like someone who needed protection, but Xena knew that she would be useless on the battlefield if she was constantly worrying about the young woman.
"Xena, please, donít do this. Donít send me away." Gabrielle said.
"Gabrielle, weíve been over this before. I canít fight them effectively if Iím not focused on what Iím doing, and I canít focus if Iím worrying about where you are." Xena said determinedly. "Gabrielle, please, for me. Stay back where youíll be safe."
"Xena, I... canít I be of some good..." Gabrielle began, but then stopped. The look of pleading on Xenaís face was more than she could take. "Ok. Ok, Xena. Iíll do it. Iím not happy about it. But Iíll do it."
"Gabrielle, please understand, I donít want you to feel that I think you canít handle this, but in a battle people are killed," Xena paused, unsure of how to put her feelings into words. "People are killed, and are forced to kill, thatís just the nature of war. And I donít want to put you in a situation where you would be faced with that choice, to kill or be killed. I donít think I could live with the consequences of what I know you would choose."
The bard considered Xenaís words and knew them to be true. She could never take a life, not even if her own depended on it. Xena reached out and drew Gabrielle into a deep embrace. They remained that way for several moments before Gabrielle drew away.
"Just promise me that weíll walk out of here together." Gabrielle said, her eyes betraying the fear in her heart.
"I promise, Gabrielle. Together." Xena said sincerely before giving the bardís shoulder a final squeeze. "Marmax is expecting me. Weíll probably be up for several hours yet working on the final preparations for tomorrow. Try to get some sleep. Iíll see you in the morning." Xena said as she turned and left the tent, leaving Gabrielle alone with her thoughts, and her fears.
Xena and Marmax had remained in the command tent until long after the other men had retired to their units to get some much needed sleep before the coming battle. The scouts had continued to report on the Horde position, and as of nightfall, the army had made camp approximately four hours steady march from their current position.
Xena had met with Marmax before the other men had joined them and had pointed out several points in their defense where they might take better advantage of the terrain, or where a particular unit might be better deployed. Marmax was impressed with Xenaís singular vision, since she had only been in their camp for less than a day.
Now with daybreak a few short hours away, Xena and Marmax agreed to retire for the night to get as much sleep as they could. With their scouts in place, they were confident that they would have sufficient warning of any movement by the enemy.
Xena returned to her quarters tired and worried. Would it be enough? Had she done all that she could to prepare Marmax and his men for what lay over the ridge?
As she pulled aside the flap and entered the tent, Xena was surprised to see Gabrielle still awake and sitting at the desk writing by the pale light cast by the small lamp. Gabrielle looked up from her scroll as Xena entered the tent.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing still up?" Xena asked.
"I wanted to get some things down in my scrolls, I guess I didnít realize how late it had gotten." Gabrielle said, laying down her quill.
"Well, it is very late, and dawn will be here all too soon. Come on, letís try to get some sleep." Xena said as she moved toward her bunk, removing her weapons and leathers and stretching out on top of the cool blanket.
Gabrielle rose from the desk and picking up the lamp walked to her own bunk and made herself ready for sleep. As she crawled under the rough blanket, Gabrielle stole a glance at Xena, who appeared to already be asleep.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"This is going to be worse than at the outpost, isnít it?"
Xena opened her eyes and turned her head to look at her friend. "Yes, Gabrielle. It is."
Gabrielle nodded silently, her mind already filled with anxiety over what was to come with the dawn. Many mornings she had enjoyed seeing the sunrise, watching as the sunís rays touched upon the land, breathing life into the world. Now she prayed for a never-ending night, for the rising sun brought the Horde.
Dawn broke, and a deep gray fog enshrouded the whole of the Corinthian plain. Thick and impenetrable, it lay blanketed across the earth like a shroud. Night crept back from the pale golden light of the rising sun, and when the night had retreated, the mist seemed to come awake, rolling and churning itís way between the ridgelines, obscuring all that lay within itís grasp.
The allied army awoke early, the tension palpable as the men made their way to their assigned posts. And with the coming of the dawn, all knew that the Horde army was near, knew that their fate was now in the hands of their commanders and the gods. Each had found a new determination to defeat the Horde threat once and for all, to protect their homeland and their families.
Xena and Gabrielle had joined Marmax and his staff in the command tent shortly before the sunís first rays broke over the landscape. Sleep had not come easily to either woman, and now they both fought to keep the dull haze of sleepiness from distracting them from the tasks at hand. Marmax had introduced Gabrielle to his adjutant, Lieutenant Maro. The two would be working very closely together, gathering the battlefield correspondences and forwarding them to either Xena or the General. The Lieutenant was a handsome young Metoan officer, tall and slender with a gentle nature, soft-spoken and sincere, and not at all what Gabrielle had come to expect of an infantry officer.
"Lieutenant, this is Gabrielle, she will be assisting you for the next several days." Marmax said. "Gabrielle, this is Lieutenant Maro."
"Pleased to meet you." Gabrielle said.
"The honor is mine." The Lieutenant replied, bowing slightly at the waist.
"Lieutenant, why donít you show Gabrielle where you will be working, while Xena and I discuss the placement of some of our defenses." The General said.
"Yes sir." The Lieutenant replied. "Right this way Gabrielle." He said leading her in the direction of a short table upon which sat several vials of ink and numerous rolls of blank parchment.
Once they were out of earshot of Xena and Marmax, Gabrielle turned to Maro, a quizzical look on her face.
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Lieutenant?"
"Not if you agree to call me Maro, only my commanders call me Lieutenant." Maro replied, a genuine smile lighting his face. Gabrielle returned the smile, and paused to consider how to phrase her question.
"You donít seem the ĎArmyí type, if you donít mind me saying so. What are you doing here, on the Generalís staff?"
"Ah, long story there. Letís just say Iím fulfilling a long family tradition of military service." Maro said, the smile never leaving his face. "Maybe I can tell you the whole story sometime."
"Maybe." Gabrielle replied sincerely, tearing her attention away from the young Lieutenant to concentrate on the parchments before her.
Xena and Marmax exited the tent and stepped out into the cool morning air, humid and still, the morning mists swirling around their legs like clinging tentacles of the night. Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm herself and focus on what was soon to come. The warrioress turned to look at Marmax. The General was tensed but not overly so, like a coiled spring, he was ready to strike at the Horde army that was now approaching. The General was unused to a defensive battle, preferring to take the offensive, but this time, that was not to be.
"Youíve done all you can, Marmax. Itís time to trust in your men. They are up to this. And so are you." Xena said.
The General turned to face the warrior woman. "I hope youíre right, Xena. If youíre not, thereís going to be a lot of dead heroes here in a few hours."
Xena nodded her head solemnly. For our sakes, Iíd better be right. "Come on, letís make our rounds one more time, theyíll be here soon."
Marmax and Xena walked in relative silence, making only cursory comments on the placement of this company or that one, whether or not to place archers to the left or the right of the center lines. The men on the front lines followed them with their eyes as they passed. Most of them had seen Marmax lead men into battle, and those that hadnít had heard the stories of his leadership abilities. And they had all heard of Xena. When she had entered the camp the day before, it was as if someone had lit a candle in a darkened room. Many now felt that not only did they have a chance at surviving the coming storm, but that they might actually win the day.
Xena let her eyes wander over the row after row of pikemen and lancers, archers and swordsman. She herself had never been a part of a single army this large, and was frankly impressed with the sheer numbers that Marmax had been able to rally to their cause. But 30,000 Horde warriors? No word from anywhere had ever spoken of so many at once, and that complicated matters greatly. Why did they gather so many? Xena thought. Theyíve never brought so many onto the battlefield at once before. Whatís different this time?
She knew how difficult it was to defeat smaller numbers of Horde soldiers, how to do so against such a large force? Well, they had a few surprises planned for them when they arrived. That and one completely crazy idea, just in case it all went poorly for them, and the Horde threatened to overwhelm them. Xena never went into a battle without leaving herself a backdoor, at least that way some of them may survive. But she fervently hoped it would not come to that.
Less than an hour later, Xena and Marmax found themselves back at the command tent. The first faint glow of the sunrise, just beginning to stretch itís fingers over the army encamped between the ridgelines, shed light on the narrow plain stretched before them as it began to dispel the fog and mists. Now able to see more clearly, the scouts had reported that the Horde army was again on the move and would be engaged with the allied advance lines within the hour.
Gabrielle had read the dispatch and had immediately sought out Xena and the General. She found them talking quietly just outside the tent.
"This just came in." The young woman said tentatively as she handed the parchment to Marmax.
The General read it quickly, feeling almost a sense of relief. It was finally beginning, and hopefully it would soon be over. One way or the other.
"Theyíll be here within the hour." Marmax said quietly. Turning to Gabrielle, "Send a message to all commanders informing them to ready their men. The Horde will be here by the time the sun has fully risen. Iíll be on the western ridge with the lookouts if you need me."
Gabrielle nodded once, knowing the implications of the message she had delivered and the ones she was about to deliver.
"Iíll join you shortly." Xena said as Marmax turned to leave. She then steeled herself to face her friend. She had to put on a brave front for Gabrielle, if only to placate the bardís fears, if she could. Xena turned to look into the pale green eyes that now held hers with the power of her faith. And her fear.
Gabrielle could feel the growing tightness in her chest and fiercely clamped down on her emotions. Fear and the bard were no strangers, but this time it was more acute, more intense. She had seen what a few thousand Horde warriors could do and the thought of facing tens of thousands terrified her. There was so much she wanted to say to Xena before she left for the front lines, and yet so much she was still unsure of. In the end, she said nothing at all. She didnít need to.
Xena could see the conflict warring within Gabrielle, and knew what the young woman must be feeling. Words had never served Xena well, actions did. The warrioress reached out, took Gabrielle by the shoulders and pulled her into a hug, wrapping her long, sinewy arms around the smaller woman. Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled in to the warm embrace, reveling in the warmth and protection she felt in Xenaís arms. They remained that way for several moments, heedless to those who may be watching them. Gabrielle then pulled away slightly to look into Xenaís eyes, leaving her arms around the warriorís waist.
"Stay safe." The bard said simply. "And come back to me."
"I will, Gabrielle. I promise." Xena replied, stepping back and breaking contact with the bard.
The cool morning air now sent a chill through Gabrielle, and she shivered slightly now that she was no longer within that warm embrace. Wrapping her arms about herself, the young Amazon Queen watched as Xena turned and strode off toward the waiting army. Artemis, protect her. Gabrielle prayed silently before turning to reenter the tent.
Marmax stood atop the ridge, his eyes peering intently through the remainder of the mists, searching for any sign of the Horde. He was dimly aware of Xenaís presence beside him, but did not dare tear his eyes away. Then, there it was, a glint of reflected sunlight off a Horde battle-axe.
"Steady men!" Marmax called out. "Have courage. Theyíre almost within range." All eyes turned toward the General. Marmax gripped the pommel of his sword tightly, fighting to calm his wildly beating heart. He felt Xenaís reassuring hand on his shoulder, then abruptly the cries began, distant and terrifying, rolling out from within the retreating mists.
The cries grew louder as the Horde army drew ever closer, their voices deep and savage, they rose steadily into a single unending howl that broke over the soldiers of the allied army like a wave. The sound seemed to echo between the ridgelines, coming from everywhere at once.
"Here they come." Xena breathed.
"Archers!" Came the command, and arrows were notched into bowstrings, pikes and lances held at the ready. Suddenly there was silence and the dawn hung still once more. The army tensed in anticipation. In the next instant the cries rose anew, a feral roar of exultation as the Horde came crashing toward the front lines. In that same instant, Xena caught movement off to her left and whirled to snatch a Horde axe from mid air as it sliced itís way toward a soldierís unprotected back.
The warrioressí eyes widened in dismay as she instantly realized what was happening.
"Marmax! Theyíre flanking us! Get the lines turned!" Xena called out over the din, as she turned to face the onslaught. Marmax caught the nearest soldier by the arm and sent him to pass the word to all his commanders on the ridges to swivel their lines away from the cut where the main body lay in wait, and instead turn to face the attack coming from the east and the west. He then scribbled a short message to Lieutenant Maro, ordering that the Metoan infantry being held in reserve be immediately dispatched to reinforce both the eastern and western ridges.
How? Marmax thought to himself. They have never attacked the flanks before! Never! Marmax shook his head. Enough time to worry about the how and why later, fight now!
Through the cover of the trees they came. Wave after wave of Horde warriors surging through the early morning mists, ripping and tearing at one another in their eagerness to attack. The Athenian long bows bent, and a rush of arrows blackened the sky as they ripped through the foremost of the warriors. The archers fired again and again, their bows humming, and still the Horde came, screaming their rage and frustration.
The two forces were less than 100 feet apart when Marmax ordered the archers to fall back and the lancers to advance slightly, their weapons braced against the hard earth in readiness. The Horde advanced steadily, seemingly unconcerned with the allied defenses. The first wave of the attack broke against the wall of lances, as the Horde let their battle-axes fly. The weapons tore through the allied lines, cutting apart the men in the forefront of the line. Xena watched from her position as the line wavered, but held.
Horde warriors were now impaled upon the pikes and lances of the allied line, and the allies moved forward to throw them off onto their own rushing up from behind, only to be shocked to see the sheer numbers yet advancing on them. The Horde seemed to pause for a moment, then they gathered themselves for another rush, this time several small groups breaking through the allied defenses, only to be cut down by the swordsmen held in reserve as they rushed forward to plug the gaps opening up in the forward lines.
Now the allies were dying in larger numbers, buried under the sheer volume of their attackers, dragged from behind their lances and pikes to be torn apart by Horde weapons. The Athenian long bows continued to rain death down upon the enemy, cutting them down in steady numbers, but where one fell, two more appeared to take his place. The ridge defenses were in danger of collapsing under the stress of the constant attack. Then suddenly, the Metoan reinforcements were there, but it was not enough.
Xena could see the lines wavering dangerously as she fought off yet another Horde assault on her position. Her sword and chakram dealing out their share of punishment on those unlucky enough to face the Warrior Princess, but Xena knew it was only a matter of time before they were overrun. Killing her attacker with one clean strike from her sword, Xena disengaged from the fight, searching for the General. Finding him safely tucked behind a wall of his own Metoan infantrymen, Xena approached the warrior.
"Marmax!" Xena yelled. "Order your men to begin falling back! We canít hold here! We must pull back to the center lines! Itís our only chance!"
Marmax looked around him briefly, and then gave the order to fall back. The allies disengaged hurriedly, retreating as quickly as possible down the ridge toward the center of the lines. Marmax and Xena stood with the remainder of the Athenian bowmen as they attempted to hold back the Horde assault long enough for the rest of the force to escape. Their blades flashing and bows loosing wave after wave of arrows into the advancing throng, they fought until they could no longer hold their position, and then fell back along the same route taken by the rest of the men.
Upon reaching the bottom of the cut, Marmax found that the division he had placed in the center of the line was now fully engaged with an even larger force of Horde warriors. Bringing his lancers and pikemen on line from the east and the west, they formed a half moon formation and attempted to hold there.
The Horde warriors from the east and west force now joined with those engaged in the center and raced to attack. Hundreds died in the rush, killed by sword, lance and arrow, or were simply trampled beneath the feet of their brethren. Yet still they came, surging forth from the mists into the narrow cut, throwing themselves against the lines of allied defenders. They threw them back- once, twice, three times as the cut filled with the bodies of the dead, and the bleeding bodies of the wounded crying out in pain and furor.
Marmax watched all of this from behind the main lines, knowing that there were simply too many Horde warriors and not enough allies. They continued to pour into the gorge, and not even the gallantry and courage of the fighters would stop them now. The defensive positions, so carefully chosen, the studious planning, all useless against this savagery.
Marmax turned to look at Xena, but she did not see him, the whole of her concentration fixed on the battle before her. The entire allied army was in danger of collapsing, and there seemed little they could do about it. Suddenly from off to their left, a group of Horde warriors managed to break through the allied line and now were making their way toward the center of the encampment. Xenaís heart clenched with fear when she realized what lay within their path of destruction. GABRIELLE! Her mind cried out in panic, as her chest constricted so that she didnít think she could breathe.
"Marmax! The command tent! Theyíre headed toward the command tent!" Xena cried, her fear driving her as she ran head long toward the tent where she knew Gabrielle and Lieutenant Maro to be. Xena found herself running toward the tent, panic driving all from her mind except getting there in time, before the Horde.
Marmax turned at the warrioressí cry, and looked on with horror as the Horde patrol seemed to cut a clear swath through the allied army toward itís center. He immediately ordered half of his personal guard to follow Xena to the command tent. These were the best of the best of his Metoan infantrymen, if any of his men could stop the small company of Horde warriors, it was them. Fighting the urge to lead them himself, Marmax forced his attention back to the battle, ordering the last of his infantrymen still held in reserve to fill the gap made by the advancing Horde warriors.
Xena stretched her already incredibly long stride to new lengths as she raced to reach Gabrielle before the Horde did. Her battle cry loosed from her throat, Xena reached the rear of the Horde column as they were nearing the tent. The Warrior Princess, her sword already dripping with Horde blood, cut her way through the two men nearest her before they had even realized they were being pursued, leaving them dead in her wake as she continued after the rest.
Two other of the Horde soldiers, hearing their comrades cry out as Xena cut them down, turned to face the warrioress. Xena brought up her sword in a vicious arc, disarming one of them easily, and plunging her sword to the hilt in his unprotected chest. Unable to retrieve her weapon from the body of the warrior, Xena released it as she turned to face the second warrior unarmed. She sidestepped his blows easily, delivering a devastating kick to the warriorsí head. His neck snapped back with a sickening crack and he fell lifelessly to the ground.
Xena bent to retrieve her weapon from the chest of the Horde soldier and suddenly became aware of several Metoan infantrymen at her side.
"Letís go." She said dangerously, her voice low. Leading the way to the command tent, Xena could see that the Horde warriors had already breached their defenses and were making their way inside. The wave of terror that broke over her nearly drove the warrioress to her knees as she heard Gabrielleís scream pierce the thick humid air.
Gabrielle and Maro had spent their time awaiting the attack chatting amiably, neither wanting to admit to any fear, but knowing it lurked within them.
"I hear youíre a bard." Maro commented, smiling.
"Yeah, I tell stories now and then. Sometimes when we need money, but mostly just because I like telling them." Gabrielle replied, returning his smile.
"Iíd like to hear one of your stories sometime. Perhaps under more relaxed circumstances?" Maro asked quietly.
"When this is all over, Maro, I promise to tell you all the stories you want to hear." Gabrielle said, her smile now touching her eyes. "So tell me, how did you..." Gabrielle began, only to be cut off by the first cries of the Horde as they began their attack. The bard froze in fear at the sound, her heart suddenly in her throat.
"Here we go." Maro said softly, his eyes belying the fear in his heart.
It was shortly thereafter that the dispatches had begun to arrive and both Maro and Gabrielle had plenty to take their minds of their terror. It was barely an hour later, when an out of breath Metoan infantryman burst into the tent, clutching the precious dispatch in his hand. He pulled himself upright, saluted Lieutenant Maro and handed him the message.
Maro immediately recognized General Marmaxís seal as he unrolled the scroll and read it quickly. Looking up from the parchment he instructed the soldier to report back to his unit, and then turned to face Gabrielle.
The young woman could see the fear and worry in Maroís expression. "What is it? Whatís happened?" She said, her own panic growing once again, leaving a now familiar ache in her chest.
"The flanks have been attacked, the General has ordered that the reserve from the center lines be moved to reinforce them."
"Xena?" Gabrielle breathed, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.
"I donít know, Gabrielle. It doesnít say." Maro returned. "Iím sorry."
Gabrielle nodded once in reply before turning her attention back to the parchment before her.
"What do I say?" She asked, dipping her quill in the ink, poised to write. They sat for several minutes, the only sound within the tent was the furious scribing of the dispatches, ordering the Metoans to the ridges. The howling of the Horde warriors outside grew in volume and intensity, until it seemed that they must be just on the other side of the tent flap. As they each finished the last of the orders for the Metoan commanders, Maro stood and pulled aside the tent flap, calling for runners. Two men appeared, dressed in tunics and carrying only shortswords so as not to be hampered by clumsy armor and weapons when delivering their messages. Maro sent them on their way, as he and Gabrielle continued to read the incoming reports and sending out orders to the commanders in the field.
The battle had raged on either side of the lines, and Gabrielle and Maro began receiving reports that things were not going well atop the ridge emplacements, the last scroll reporting that the flanks had collapsed and the men had fallen back to the center of the lines.
Gabrielleís brow had creased with worry, but she knew there was little she could do except wait and hope. The sounds of battle now appeared to be drawing closer, and Gabrielle cocked her head to listen more closely.
"Gabrielle? Whatís wrong?" Maro asked, concerned.
"Shh. Donít you hear it? Somethingís headed this way." Gabrielle said quietly, still listening intently. The screams of the Horde drew ever nearer, until they could be heard within a few yards of the tent.
"Gabrielle, get behind me." Maro said as he unsheathed his sword, waiting for the inevitable. Then he heard it, the clash of metal against metal just outside the walls of the tent as the Horde warriors engaged the small troop of men left behind to protect the command staff.
Maro and Gabrielle were alone in the tent, having dispatched all of the runners to various parts of the battlefield. Now it was the young Lieutenant who stood between them and the Horde warrior standing before them, his body and weapon covered in blood, both his and that of his enemies. Gabrielle had surreptitiously reached for her Amazon staff and now held it across her body, ready to defend herself, if necessary.
The Horde warrior bared his teeth in a hideous snarl and howled, his cry filling the small tent and ringing in their ears. He then lunged at Maro, swinging his battle-axe with abandon, almost out of control in his desire to destroy the Greek warrior before him.
Maro parried the blow cleanly, attempting to keep himself between the Horde warrior and Gabrielle. Gabrielle watched as Maro attempted to hold off the warrior, and caught a glimpse of daylight as the tent flap opened to reveal two more Horde warriors. Gabrielle moved into a defensive position, her knees bent, her body tensed, ready to strike.
Maro continued his battle with the Horde warrior as Gabrielle moved to lunge at the two newcomers. As she moved into the light cast by the now half open tent flap, the eyes of one of the warriors widened in surprise and he hesitated momentarily, giving the bard an opportunity to land a blow to his knees that effectively took him down to the ground clutching at his legs and moaning.
Gabrielle left her attention with the wounded Horde warrior a split second too long, and the second soldier was able to deliver a powerful blow to her staff with his axe that took the bard to her knees, suddenly defenseless. Maro saw Gabrielle go down and immediately turned his body toward her attacker, ignoring his own opponent. He blocked the blow aimed at her head, but not before his own attacker landed a vicious swipe to his unprotected side, taking the young officer down, blood pouring from the deep laceration.
Gabrielle was stunned she was still alive, and quickly recovered her weapon in time to place herself between Maro and the two Horde warriors who were still on their feet. The warrior she had taken down was now struggling to stand, growling something unintelligible to his companions. Gabrielle could see the same wide-eyed look in their eyes as they turned to look at her. The looks sent chills up and down her spine. One of the warriors began moving toward the bard menacingly, and she brought up her staff in a devastating arc, her movements so quick it caught the man by surprise, catching him solidly on the shoulder and sending him flying.
The first warrior faced her again, this time no longer distracted. He limped toward her, twirling his blade in front of his body, faster and faster, the blade becoming a blur, until Gabrielle couldnít follow itís movements. It was then that the warrior attacked, swinging his weapon down in a slash that finally disarmed the bard, her staff clattering to the ground.
The Horde warrior would have recognized the Chosen One anywhere. Many who were there that day had described her until he could picture her in his mindís eye. Now she stood before him, and he was determined to be the one to deliver her to Telmark and the priests of Arimon. His would be the honor. But as the prophecy had foretold, she did not come willingly, and he considered exactly how to capture the One without harming her. In the end, it was Gabrielle who made the decision for him.
In a surge of foolhardiness born of fear and adrenaline, Gabrielle rushed the warrior, throwing herself into the manís midsection, hoping to knock him off balance and escape out the tent flap. Instead the warrior reacted out of instinct and self preservation, bringing the flat of his weapon around to contact with the bardís head and shoulder, causing her to cry out in pain before she crumpled to the floor in a heap.
The warrior was horrified that he had possibly killed the Chosen One and knelt on the ground next to her prone body. He was in this position, poised over Gabrielle, a bloody battle-axe in his hand, when Xena burst through the flap, her sword drawn and ready, death in her ice blue eyes.
The Warrior Princess had battled her way to the command tent, and now found herself greeted by a sight that froze her heart in her chest. The Horde warrior was crouched over Gabrielleís body in a position she had seen her men in those many years ago as the Horde had moved in to skin them alive. Xena could feel the beginnings of a darkness creep into the corners of her mind as she took all of it in, she could feel her vision growing dim as she allowed the darkness to claim her, drawing strength from it.
It was then that she could feel the rage build.
"GABRIELLE!" The cry tore from her throat in grief and furor. "Nooo!"
Xenaís sword came up in a terrible stroke that threatened to separate the warriorís head from his shoulders. He blocked it at the last possible second, his comrade moving to get behind the warrioress. Xena caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, and brought her sword around to block the strike aimed at the back of her head. Throwing him back, Xena sidestepped to keep both warriors in sight. Twirling her sword in front of her body, Xena moved to strike at them, her sword weaving between the two men, taking them both on at once. The warrioress no longer felt anything, not fear, not pain, not grief. Devoid of everything, she fought almost mechanically, letting her instincts take over.
The warrior Gabrielle had hobbled was now moving toward the open tent flap, determined to escape back to Telmark to tell him what had befallen the Chosen One. Calling out to his companion, the limping warrior retreated out the flap as the second warrior blocked Xenaís path, allowing him to escape.
Xena had positioned herself between the Horde warriors and Gabrielle, unfortunately allowing one of them a perfect escape route, but the other was not so lucky. She watched as the warrior limped out of the tent, and then concentrated fully on the Horde soldier in front of her. The darkness that threatened to overwhelm her, now guided her sword as she lashed out at the soldier with a flurry of blows that forced the man steadily back until he had no choice but to attempt an assault of his own. His attempts at an attack met a stone wall of resistance from Xena. Finally, he left himself open for a strike and Xena took advantage of his mistake, impaling him on the end of her sword. He dropped his own weapon, his hands closing reflexively around the blade sticking out of his chest.
Xena planted her foot squarely in the warriorís chest, pushing him off and onto the floor. He was dead before he hit the ground. Xena stood over him, her sword quivering in her hand, her breathing ragged as she fought to quell the darkness that had threatened to claim her once again. Her vision began to clear as she turned to kneel next to Gabrielle, her nerveless fingers frantically searching for a pulse, a breath, anything that would give her hope that Gabrielle was still alive.
The side of the bardís head was covered in blood, but the wound seemed superficial. Xena gently rolled Gabrielle onto her back and lifted the bard to cradle her in her arms.
"Gabrielle? Come on Gabrielle, donít do this to me." Xena whispered as she ran her hands along the young womanís neck, searching for any sign of life. Then, there it was, a faint beat, then another. Xena breathed an audible sigh of relief as the soldiers from the Metoan guard burst through the door.
Xenaís head jerked up as they entered. "See to the Lieutenant." She ordered. "Weíve got to get out of here. Theyíll be coming in force any minute." Xena gathered Gabrielle up into her arms and exited the tent. She turned toward the front lines and what she saw horrified her. The Horde had broken through the western flank and was now closing in on the center of their lines. Marmax had ordered a full retreat and was preparing to close the Ďback doorí Xena had in readiness. Upon seeing the Warrior Princess carrying the still body of the bard in her arms, Marmax came toward them, fear and concern registering in his eyes.
Xena saw the look and attempted to calm his fears. "Sheís alive. But we need to get her out of here. Is everything ready?"
"Yes. The archers know what to do. The units are already in full retreat. Letís go." Marmax said as he led them away from the front lines.
At first all was chaos as the men on the front lines pulled back from their emplacements and retreated along the predetermined path, following the officers in the headlong flight out of the cut to freedom. The Horde surged forward, seeing the allied lines crumble, shrieking with glee. Back surged the lancers and pikemen, clogging the mouth of the cut in their frantic need to escape the slaughter, escape the Horde. As the last of the rear guard disengaged and fled toward the mouth of the narrow canyon, the Athenian archers turned, set themselves, and fired one massive volley into the rocks to the east and west above the defile.
The arrows found their mark, and the rock face began to shudder and quake, then slid down the side of the ridge and onto the Horde warriors streaming through the cut, pursuing the fleeing allied army. For a moment, the allies turned back and watched as, for just an instant, the path through the narrow canyon lay open and the Horde began to flow through like an unstoppable wave, choking the passage as they struggled to gain the canyon beyond. Howling in rage they charged after the fleeing army, but they were too late. The allies had already gained the other side and had scrambled through.
The ridge face continued its slow slide down on top of the Horde army and the allies could hear the cries of the warriors as they were buried under tons of rock and debris. The howling of the Horde warriors, now trapped behind the wall of rock several feet high, greeted the ears of the fleeing army as they continued their flight out of the canyon and onto the plain to the south.