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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 Marmax’s watchful eyes. Xena had spent her every waking hour making the rounds through the city’s defenses, talking to the men, reassuring them when she could. They seemed to draw courage just from her presence, something she didn’t 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 it’s 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.
She’ll try to come back here, I know her, all too well. Ephiny, you had better keep her there, if you know what’s good for you. Xena thought ruefully. Ah well, maybe she’ll 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. They’ll come, and soon. They’ll wait for nightfall that’s what I’d do. Attack just after full dark, then they’ll come in force. Xena’s thoughts were interrupted by a presence near her, and she turned to face him.
"Marmax." The warrioress said simply.
"Xena." The General returned. "They’re close. Very, very close. What are they waiting for?"
"They’re waiting for dark. Attacking after dark will disguise their numbers and we won’t be able to tell what direction they’re coming from until it’s 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. I’ll 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. I’m 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 it’s 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! They’ll 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 weren’t 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."
"I’ll 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? We’ll 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 couldn’t 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.
"They’ve got to be running out of energy soon, they can’t keep scaling that wall over and over."
"You’re right." Xena agreed. "They’ll probably hit us once more tonight, it’s getting light. Dawn will be here soon and they won’t 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 Xena’s 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 Gabrielle’s 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?