~ The Holy War ~
by Proud Warrioress
DISCLAIMER: Ok, some rather dry stuff here, these characters, at least the ones you recognize, are property of MCA/Universal and the author intends no copyright infringement in the writing of this story.
The title of this story is "The Holy War" for a reason, and since wars don't tend to be very nice, there is quite a little bit of violence, blood, and death in this story. If that sort of thing offends you, please stop reading now.
Feedback is welcome. Tell me I'm wonderful or awful at jacksmom1@Lcom.net.
I would like to dedicate this to my daughter, Cora Elizabeth, who left this life well before she deserved. I love you sweetheart. Keep listening for Mommy, I'm talking to you each and every day.
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
ON THE CORINTHIAN HIGHLANDS
He sat in darkness and in silence. His orders were that he not be disturbed. His men had fought well and he was honored to lead them, but still, he feared defeat. One small misstep would mean his death, and he knew that fact all too well. He had seen his predecessor felled by the war axes of three of the warriors among them. His own axe had been the first to fly, the first to strike down the defeated leader. That was why he, Telmark, was now in command. And he had vowed not to end his career in the same way. He would die in glorious, honorable combat, and would be assured a place among the honored dead. He had been amazed at the skill of the warrior woman who had defeated Madar, and wondered if she were not truly Horde in her soul. The Greek women fought with such bravery! Surely they must've been touched by Kempoch, the Great God of War! Telmark thought to himself. It would not be the first time a woman had been bestowed with Kempoch's gifts.... He mused.
The prophets told of a strange woman who was destined to become a beacon to the tribes of the Horde, could the Greek woman who had shown such courage, be the One? It had always been presumed that the One the prophecy had spoken of would be Horde, but now the doubts had begun to surface among his people. What if the prophecy truly meant "strange" as in foreign? Many were now looking to him to bring their savior to them, the One they had been waiting for! The One to lead them into the future! But she is Greek! Those accursed dogs! They must be destroyed! Kempoch commands it! The Greek infestation must be stopped, there is no other option. Prophecy or no. But could he deny his people their savior? Even if she is Greek.
With that thought, Telmark rose from his chair and strode purposefully from his hut. His men were awaiting his orders, his people were awaiting his decision. As he emerged from the darkness of his hut into the harsh light of day, he squinted against the sunlight. As his eyes adjusted, Telmark became aware that the attention of every warrior in the camp was upon him, waiting for him to declare his decision.
Telmark was nothing if not a showman. He was well aware of the anticipation building within the hearts of those arrayed before him, and he paused to allow those feelings to grow. They were all straining to hear his voice, wondering if today would be the day they would go forth into battle for the glory of the Horde and the glory of Kempoch. Telmark let his gaze fall upon each of the faces before him before finally speaking.
"My brothers, honored warriors of Kempoch! Hear me! Today we go forth in our holy war against the vermin who threaten us! Today we go to reclaim our Chosen One!" Telmark proclaimed.
Seeing the look of joy that was reflected in many of the faces of his warriors, he knew he had made the right decision. Until his Second in command came to stand before him, his arms crossed in front of his chest his eyes slightly downcast. His posture was of one requesting an audience with his leader, to the surprise of many Horde warriors. Normally, anything that the Second would have to say to the Supreme Commander could be said in front of all, but this time the Second had clearly requested a private meeting. But there were others who were not at all surprised and in fact had anticipated this.
Not all among the Horde warriors felt that this young Greek woman was the savior from the prophecy. A Greek woman leading them to glory and honor? It was unthinkable. Greeks were merely a pestilence to be wiped from the face of the earth, unworthy of such an honor.
Telmark watched as his Second stood before him, patiently awaiting his commander's decision whether or not to grant him an audience. Telmark was shocked. He had only heard of such instances before, but had never seen it first hand. The warrior standing before him had fought with him on several occasions and Telmark trusted him completely. If he comes to me in this way, he must believe in what he's doing. I have to trust in that. This must be a matter not meant for the other warriors to hear. With a slight inclination of his head, Telmark bade the Second to follow him into the command hut. A slight murmur rippled through the assembled warriors as they watched the two enter the doorway and disappear within.
Telmark stepped up onto the raised platform at the far end of the hut, upon which stood his seat of command. A simple and functional chair of horsehide and wood, it was from here that all formal audiences were held either to hand down commendations for bravery or punishments for cowardice. Telmark turned and sat, his eyes lowered to those of his Second, his gaze never wavering. It was a look that conveyed a great deal, but mostly that Telmark was still in command and the man before him was not on the same level with him.
"What is it that you wish to speak to me about, Sidon?" Telmark asked.
"Oh great and most wise Telmark, grant that I may be allowed to speak to you on matters most urgent." Sidon began formally, but Telmark cut him off.
"Sidon, we've known each other for many years. We have fought together, and bled together for the glory of Kempoch, you may speak to me as an equal, here. No one else is listening. Tell me what troubles you."
"Telmark, you know me to be a capable warrior and I would never question your orders, but I feel that you should be aware of the feelings of some of the men. There are those among us who believe that this Greek is no more the one spoken of in the prophecy than you or I. Many fear the wrath of Kempoch if you bring her here.... She is Greek!" Sidon spat, as if the very word were poison. "She cannot be of the gods! Has not Kempoch decreed the death of all Greek dogs? The prophets tell us so! They are to be destroyed, Telmark. All of them." Sidon finished hoping fervently that he had been able to convey the feelings and fears now running through the hearts of many of the Horde warriors. They had come to him because they knew he felt as they did, that this idea of a Greek woman fulfilling the prophecy was an abomination to Kempoch, and a blasphemy that they would not stand for.
"Telmark, they murdered our women and children. You know of the stories. Those Greek dogs hunted them, tortured them. They died like animals, Telmark. Now you want to raise one of them up to become the Chosen One of the prophecy? You know what the Kempoch's prophets have ordained. The Greek infestation must be stopped. Even now they threaten our borders." Sidon began to pace before his commander, his agitation growing as he continued to speak. "We cannot defy Kempoch, Telmark. Those who have, are now dead and I do not intend to join them."
Telmark sat in silent contemplation for several minutes, carefully considering the gravity of the situation in which he now found himself. Any decision he now made could have serious ramifications, both to his warriors and to those they had left behind, far to the North. Word had already spread back to their homelands of the discovery of the Chosen One from the prophecies, and the people were clamoring for him to return her to them. They needed an icon, someone to hold up and say here, here is your promised savior, she has come! But he knew that taking her from the Greeks would not be easy. They would not give her up simply because the Horde demanded it. No, they would be forced to fight for her. He was certain that the two Greek warrior women he had seen fight in the fortress near the river were linked somehow. It was also in the prophecy that the Chosen One would have a protector among her own strange kind, one who was willing to die to defend the life of the One. But enough, Sidon and the men needed an answer. Would he pursue her, or simply destroy her as he had destroyed so many other Greeks?
"I hear your words Sidon. And I know how strongly you, and those who believe as you do, feel about this matter. But I still believe that she could be the One, Sidon. Outside that Greek fortress near the river, it was as if I was seeing the prophecy come to life right before my eyes! Tell me you didn't feel it, didn't see it yourself! I know what the priests of Kempoch have said, but have not the prophets also declared this Greek woman to be the Chosen One? But we must know for sure. I will still bring her here, but she will be tested. Only then will we know her worth, then we will know if she is truly The One." Telmark concluded, certain that he had found the only solution that could possibly please both sides of this delicate matter.
Sidon slowly nodded his head. "That will be acceptable. Then we will know for sure."
"I will inform the men of my decision. You may go, I will be out in a moment."
Sidon turned and left the hut, confident that he had done all he could to placate the fears of the men. Telmark paused for a moment before rising to face his men. He knew that he had done the only thing he could. Now, for the sake of his people, he hoped that this Greek woman was truly The One.
ON THE ROAD HEADING TOWARD CORINTH
They had traveled for several days, stopping only when it became too dark to continue, the urgency in their pace evident. Eight days ago, word had reached them that a great army was massing near Corinth, and that the commanding General Marmax had urgently requested their presence. That had been enough to spur Xena and Gabrielle into action, setting out for the army's encampment. They were now only half a day's journey from the main body, and their sense of unease had grown with each step. Xena had followed Marmax ever since their meeting in Thessaly, and had learned of his success at brokering a lasting peace between Metoa and Thessaly. Now he was at the head of an allied army of Athenians, Corinthians, Metoans, and Thessalians that was rumored to be amassing to face a foe the likes of which few had ever seen.
They had heard persistent rumors for weeks, half whispered in the dark corners of inns and taverns, of a huge force moving on the Corinthian plain. The descriptions of painted savage warriors was unmistakable for the warrior and bard. They had faced them before when they had stumbled upon the beleaguered Athenian river outpost desperately hanging onto a slim foothold along the river banks.
It had begun innocently enough, the first time they had faced this enemy, with a morning of fishing at the river's edge. It had ended with Xena assuming command of the Athenians garrisoned at the outpost and facing down the Horde, an enemy that at the time they readily feared and barely understood. The warrior had needed to tap the darkest side of herself, that part of her soul that was all Ares, to bring them all through their ordeal. It was the part of her soul that allowed Xena to cut down fleeing Horde warriors rather than allow them to escape with knowledge of their defenses. The part of her that she had hoped to leave behind when she had left her army those years ago, but had been horrified to realize how easily she could take advantage of that blood lust again. The darkness was not as far from the surface as she would have liked to believe.
It was the part of her soul she could feel soaring at the thought of leading men into battle, reveling in the bloodlust. The warrior hadn't spent years honing her battle skills to not acknowledge the pride she had felt at that Athenian outpost when it had been her martial skill and natural battlefield leadership that had led those men to defeat the Horde and escape back home. But it had most importantly been her defeat of the Horde leader in single combat that had allowed them to escape that river valley with their lives.
But none of that had mattered when she had been called to the outpost gates and peering out over the battlefield had seen Gabrielle, alone and unarmed, giving water and comfort to Athenian and Horde wounded alike. It had been the bard's selfless actions that had pulled her back from the brink of that encroaching darkness. That selfless action that had allowed her to see the Horde as something other than animals. They had more in common with these warriors than they had ever suspected. A code of honor that was shared among the warriors, Horde and Greek.
All of that seemed like so long ago now, but here they were, traveling this road toward an enemy that had nearly defeated her once before. They had stood against the Horde at the fortified river outpost facing only a small number of Horde warriors and they had nearly been defeated. Now they faced an army of the Horde, how could they possibly hope to defeat so many?
They traveled mostly in silence, neither feeling much like talking. The road was hot and the dust rising off Argo's hooves as she moved along the road threatened to choke the young bard walking at Xena's side, but she did not complain. It must be something serious for Marmax to have gathered such a large army. Gabrielle mused silently. And whatever it is, seems to have Xena pretty scared. I know she thinks she's hiding it from me, but she should know that after two years together, she couldn't hide from me that easily. I just wish she would open up and tell me what it is.
Gabrielle ceased her musings, the heat and dust convincing her that her energy was better spent simply concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The weariness she felt seemed to permeate every joint in her body, and they all cried out for relief. The journey was nearly over, and she looked forward to a bath and a hot meal when they reached the army's main encampment. Gabrielle glimpsed Xena out of the corner of her eye, and wondered not for the first time from where the warrior drew her seemingly unlimited stamina. Xena sat tall in the saddle, relaxed yet wary for any sign of trouble. She could travel for days without more than a few hours rest here and there, and Gabrielle continually marveled at her strength.
I don't think I'll ever be that strong.
"Who goes there? Identify yourself!" Came an angry shout, startling Gabrielle and bringing them to an abrupt stop as Xena reigned in Argo. Three Athenian infantrymen appeared from the edges of the forest, brandishing their weapons in front of them.
"My name is Xena. I was summoned by General Marmax." Xena relayed calmly, waiting quietly while the soldiers considered her response.
"The General ordered that we verify your identities. I must ask a question of your companion." The soldier stated.
Xena raised her eyebrows at this, and turned to look at Gabrielle standing beside her. The bard simply shrugged her shoulders in response. Xena said nothing, and inclined her head slightly to signal their willingness to comply.
The soldier turned his attention to Gabrielle and voiced his question.
"What was it that you told the General at the healing temple in Thessaly about life?"
Gabrielle's brow furrowed slightly as she struggled to remember the conversation she had shared with Marmax. The events leading up to her injury had become hazy and indistinct after her near death, and now she attempted to concentrate on the story she had told Marmax about the king who had discovered the benefits of learning peaceful ways. She could remember the story clearly enough, but what had she said afterwards? Then suddenly the memory sprang to life. Marmax had commented that her story had nothing to do with real life!
"I told him that the true secret of life is to find peace within yourself and to share it with the world. And that life is only what you make of it." Gabrielle replied confidently.
The soldier nodded slightly at her response, "The General has requested that you be brought to his quarters immediately. If you'll both come with me." With that he turned and led them down the well-worn path, leaving his two comrades at their post. Gabrielle watched as they silently melted back within the cover of the trees, no longer seen unless you knew exactly where to look.
Xena and Gabrielle obediently followed their guide for the next hour as he led them deeper into the surrounding forests. Xena could see the tell tale signs of a large force encamped nearby. The trees had been stripped of anything edible or anything they might use for fuel to keep them warm at night. From the looks of this wood, they had been there for several days at least, maybe as long as two weeks, and the force was much larger than they had been led to believe. The supplies the forest could provide must be running short and she was aware that they probably were having to range farther and farther from the main body to find food. They couldn't stay here much longer before they would be forced to move the army in search of supplies.
As they drew closer to the encampment, the sounds of an army at rest reached their ears. Songs and laughter, punctuated by the clash of swords and staffs filled the hot and humid air. Xena breathed deeply as the smells of the camp filled her nostrils and awakened memories, some good, some not. As they rounded the final bend in the road, the scope of the army that had gathered here hit them, and they stopped to take in the sight.
Xena hadn't seen this many warriors gathered together in one place since her historic battle at Corinth nearly eight years ago. Then the forces of Corinth and Athens had been arrayed against her, now she traveled to join them. It had been during that conflict that she had first been called the Destroyer of Nations. The battles were among some of the bloodiest ever fought, with massive casualties on both sides. In the end, Xena and her army had emerged victorious, but it wasn't a victory she was later proud to recall.
What was before her now was an army of nearly 50,000 men, judging from the sheer size of the camp, its edges not clearly visible in the haze of the afternoon sun. As she took all of this in, Xena turned to look at Gabrielle. The young bard's face was a mixture of fear and awe at what she was witnessing. Xena's mouth quirked into a slight smile as she laid a hand briefly on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle turned to look at the warrior, her fear placated somewhat by the confidence she found in the eyes that now silently regarded her.
"Xena," Gabrielle breathed, "why do they need so many?"
"I'm not sure, Gabrielle. But I think I may know." Xena answered cryptically. "Come on, let's go talk to Marmax. I have a few questions I want to ask him."
"Lead the way, Corporal." Xena said, turning to the soldier who was now waiting patiently for them a few paces up the road.
Gabrielle flinched inwardly at the tinge of fear in Xena's voice and felt her heart beat faster with anxiety. In her heart of hearts, she knew that the next few weeks could quite possibly be the most difficult of her young life. Just the sheer size of the army she now found herself a part of did not bode well. These men and their leaders were gearing up for a great, and possibly gruesome, battle and yet their spirits seemed high. As the trio made their way toward the General's headquarters tent, Gabrielle passed by several cooking fires around which were gathered small groups of men, telling stories and singing, mending torn clothing, or sharpening dulled weapons. No one appeared at all fearful or anxious and Gabrielle wished she could share in their relaxed camaraderie.
The clusters of men began to thin somewhat as they approached the officer's quarters. The tents here were larger, but lacked the gaiety expressed so freely among the enlisted men. Among the officers hung a pall of tension that seemed to permeate the thick, humid air. It was the knowledge of what was to come that created the air of unease, and Gabrielle noticed it immediately. It was as if she had crossed some invisible barrier and now found herself in a much darker place. She felt her fear rising in reaction to the air of foreboding around her and fought quietly to force it to a small corner of her mind. She could deal with her fear later, when she knew what it was out there that garnered this enormous force to face it.
As they followed the soldier, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves moving directly toward one large tent. Gabrielle didn't need to have any experience with an army or it's procedures to know that this must be the command tent. Just outside the main tent flap a small table had been set up under an awning. The awning was free standing and had no walls, allowing a clear view in any direction. Around the table stood four men, bent over several maps and dispatches arrayed before them. One of the men, dressed in bronze armor and black leathers, the crest of his unit displayed proudly upon his chest Gabrielle did not recognize. He must be Corinthian. Gabrielle surmised, but the dress of the others around the table she did recognize. The woven leather of the Athenian Commander, the black and red dyed uniform of the Thessalian, these two men the bard had never met, but the fourth of the group she clearly recognized.
Marmax had changed little in the year since they had last seen each other at the healing temple of Aesculapius in Thessaly. No longer hampered by his shoulder injury, Marmax now appeared every bit the Supreme Commander, raising his head to stand tall before his staff, confident and strong. The briefing was apparently concluded, and he dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
The corporal, who had been their escort up until now, strode purposefully toward the General, saluted and delivered his message that the warrior woman Xena and her companion had arrived safely and were waiting to speak with him. The General's face brightened at the news and he lifted his eyes to scan over the corporal's shoulder for his guests. As his gaze landed on Xena and Gabrielle, he broke into a wide grin. Dismissing the soldier, he approached the two women, his happiness at seeing them evident. As he neared Xena, he extended his hand, gripping her forearm in the traditional warrior fashion.
"Xena, Gabrielle. Good to see you both. Thank you for coming so quickly."
"Well, you did say it was urgent." Xena said, her lopsided grin transforming itself into a look of concern.
"Indeed it is. Come inside and rest, have something to eat. Then we'll talk." The General said, clasping Gabrielle warmly on the shoulder. Xena handed Argo's reigns over to a stable boy standing nearby, and then turned to enter the tent. The General leaned in closer to Gabrielle as Xena preceded them.
"I'm glad to see you are well." Marmax said sincerely.
"I'm glad you're ok too." Gabrielle replied warmly, a smile gracing her features as she allowed Marmax to lead her within.
As she stepped through the tent flap, Xena felt as though she was stepping back through time. All of the smells, sights, and sounds of this great army brought back the heady feelings she had savored when she herself had commanded an army upon this very ground. That was many years ago now, and most of the memories she had of that time were not ones she cared to relive, but being here, in the command tent, the tent that she would have occupied, had brought it all back to her in a rush. Xena recalled many a late night, planning strategies with her lieutenants and captains for the battle that lay ahead. She had been determined to conquer Corinth and its army, but she hadn't counted on the reinforcements they had been able to rally. In the end, she had lost far more men than she would have wanted, but she still claimed victory.
In a particularly bloody confrontation, Xena's army had managed to lure an entire division of Corinthian and Athenian infantry into a valley just north of the battlefield. Once there, Xena's elite had quickly surrounded them, cutting off any hope of escape. The division commander, seeing that he had no other options, surrendered after only putting up a token resistance, but Xena's blood had been high, and her men had always been difficult to hold back. In the end the victors had wiped out the men attempting to surrender to them, leaving no one alive, not even the wounded. When a patrol sent to check on the division's whereabouts reported back to the Corinthian Supreme Commander of the crushing defeat and the savagery of the battle he had become incensed, launching an all out attack.
Xena was prepared for the assault, and when it came her men were ready. By the end of the day, nearly three quarters of the combined Corinthian and Athenian armies lay dead or wounded, while Xena had lost only a fourth of her army's strength. By the time Athenian reinforcements, led by General Galapan arrived, it was too late. Xena had emerged victorious in her greatest battle to date, securing her place as one of the most feared and hated warlords of her time and her army's place as one of the most powerful in the land.
Xena had felt some of those old feelings resurface when she had led the Athenians against the Horde and now was content to allow Marmax to lead this new army. She couldn't allow herself to sink to those depths again, not if there was a way around it. As she made her way into the interior of the tent, Xena could hear Gabrielle and Marmax speaking in hushed tones behind her. Gabrielle's soft laughter reached her ears, the sweet tones of her voice breaking the spell her memories had woven. If only I could be so relaxed. Xena thought. Well, it's enough that I can give her a sense of protection that allows her to feel so at ease.
"Come, sit." Marmax said, gesturing to a corner of the tent in which a small table and four chairs had been arranged. On the table was a small assortment of fruits, dried field rations of jerky and salt pork, and two skins of wine.
"I'm sorry I don't have anything better to offer you. We only prepare hot meals in the evenings." Marmax said apologetically, as they each took a chair at the table. Marmax reached for the wineskin and poured a cup for Xena and Gabrielle before pouring one for himself. Gabrielle lost no time in helping herself to the assortment on the table, food was food to the hungry bard, and right now she was famished. They had traveled, nearly without stopping, since the messenger from Marmax arrived, and Gabrielle for one was glad for an opportunity to sit and eat without having to leap to her feet as soon as the meal was complete to resume her march.
Xena selected a piece of jerky from the plate before her and ate slowly and deliberately, a slight grin quirking the edges of her mouth as she watched Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. The bard certainly could enjoy a meal, even if it was only field rations. In between bites, Gabrielle plied Marmax with questions. How were things going in Metoa? How was the rebuilding coming in Thessaly? Had he seen Hippocrates or Democritus lately? All of which the General answered cheerfully.
As the meal drew to a close, the mood became somber, Marmax's face took on a look of utter seriousness as he turned to face Xena.
"You know what we are going to face here very soon, don't you Xena?" Marmax asked.
Xena's eyes never left the General's face as she replied. "I've had my suspicions, but I didn't know for sure until I saw your army." Xena paused. Fear was no stranger to the Warrior Princess, but the enemy that now stood poised to strike at this great allied army stuck fear into her heart like no other ever could, be it god or mortal. When she uttered the name, it seemed to the young bard seated next to her that perhaps she even feared the word.
Marmax nodded his head solemnly. No words were spoken, nor were they needed. The three in the room knew what they faced, and that the chances of surviving a battle with a Horde army were slim at best. But Marmax had not been summoned to lead this army simply into defeat, he intended to win and he was prepared to use every advantage he could to achieve that goal.
"I understand you defeated a legion of Horde infantry along the Stroyman River." Marmax stated.
Xena gave no reaction to the mention of the battle, but Gabrielle visibly stiffened beside her. The warrior laid a calming hand on the bard's arm before answering.
"I did." Xena replied simply, withdrawing her hand as she felt Gabrielle relax slightly. The gesture was not lost on Marmax, but he refrained from commenting on it. He could see the look in Xena's eyes, she knew what was coming, knew the enemy well, and feared it. That fact chilled the hardened warrior, but he pressed on, knowing that the woman before him held his only hope.
"Xena, you know what I'm going to ask of you. You are the only one to ever defeat the Horde. Before they had always gained victory, but now it has been proven. They can be beaten!" Marmax said emphatically.
"Marmax, exactly what are you asking of me?" Xena queried, her eyes narrowing.
"Xena, I have never faced them in battle before. Not only have you faced them, you've defeated them!"
"Marmax, no..." Xena interrupted, shaking her head slightly, but the General would not be silenced.
"Xena, hear me out. You know their tactics and better yet, you know their weaknesses. I can't think of anyone better suited to take command of this army. If we are to have any chance of defeating them, Xena, you must!" Marmax concluded forcefully.
Xena held Marmax's gaze for several long seconds, weighing her answer carefully. Gabrielle, to her credit, had said nothing during this exchange. Xena could feel the bard's apprehension as if it were a tangible object she could simply reach out and hold in her hand. Xena turned to look at Gabrielle, and could see the fear and the worry reflected in the sea green eyes before her.
"No Marmax." Xena replied, turning back to face the General, she continued quickly, not giving Marmax time to respond. "I will stay, advise you as you need me, fight if necessary. But I will not lead this army."
"Xena, please. We need you to lead us." Marmax began. "You know me Xena. If I thought I could lead us out of this with any chance at winning, I would." Marmax lowered his voice, as if afraid what he was about to say would be overheard. "I don't know how to fight these savages. I don't understand them. You do."
Xena contemplated the General's words for a moment before responding.
"Marmax, the answer is still no. I don't know these men and worse, they don't trust me."
"But, at the Athenian outpost, by the river..."
"That was different!" Xena nearly shouted, cutting in. "Those men were beaten. They were convinced they were going to die. They had lost faith in the men leading them, especially after Galapan died. They were looking for someone to lead them, these men here already have someone."
Marmax let his eyes drop slightly as he took in a deep breath and let it out.
"Of course, you're right. You understand I had to ask. I am grateful for any advice you could give me. I need you at my side in this Xena."
"I came to help, Marmax, that hasn't changed."
Marmax nodded once. He still felt as though he was not up to leading this army against the Horde threat, but at least Xena had agreed to stay and become his advisor where the Horde was concerned.
"I took the liberty of arranging quarters for you both. Come, I'll help you get settled in." The General stood and led the way out of the tent, toward the officer's quarters. Marmax had no doubts that Xena could handle herself among the common men of an army, but he feared that Gabrielle was another matter entirely. Men away from their wives and sweethearts had been known to act upon any impulse that struck them, especially right before going into battle. Introducing a young, beautiful woman in their midst would only invite trouble. So the General had arranged for them to share a tent among the officers. His officers he could more readily control, and Marmax trusted them to control themselves where the young bard was concerned.
As Marmax wound his way among the tents, Gabrielle allowed her eyes to roam, taking in the sights around her. She had never seen an army this size before and was determined to remember every detail, every nuance so that she could record all that she had seen in one of her scrolls later that evening. The bard in her reveled in the chance to witness what was to come first hand, knowing it would make for a tale that all would remember for years to come. But the Poteidaian peasant side of her feared what she knew was going to be a terrible and bloody battle, and that battle was coming soon. She could feel it.
And of course, we're right in the middle of it, again. Gabrielle lamented. I just don't think I can take all the death again. The last time they had faced the Horde, Gabrielle had taken upon herself to care for the wounded. At first she had only wanted to alleviate their suffering, but she had found herself drawn deeper and deeper into despair as more and more of the young soldiers had died, only to have their bodies hoisted upon the walls in an attempt to deceive the Horde. Xena's plan had been simple, use the bodies to fool the Horde scouts into thinking they had been reinforced. It had been gruesome, but it had been necessary. Now Gabrielle feared she would be called upon to make the same kinds of life and death choices as before, only this time on a much larger scale. Her only consolation was that this time, the healers were all still alive, and hopefully they would stay that way.
Marmax stopped before a simple two-man tent.
"Here it is. I'll send someone for you when it's time for our evening meal." With that Marmax excused himself and left Xena and Gabrielle alone to settle into their new temporary home.
As her eyes adjusted to the interior of the tent, Gabrielle surveyed her new surroundings. Against the far wall were two short cots, to the left of the entryway was a small table on which rested a pitcher of fresh water and a basin, to the right a desk and chair. All in all, about as nice as some inns we've encountered over the last couple of years. Gabrielle thought, nodding her head slightly in approval.
Xena moved to claim one of the cots, removing her weapons and placing them on the bed before turning her attention to her armor. Quietly, Gabrielle moved behind the warrior and reached up to unhook the breastplate and remove it. The simple gesture warmed Xena's heart and she did not even attempt to hide the smile on her face as she turned toward Gabrielle. The bard returned the smile, but it faded quickly.
"Xena, do you think we really have a chance?" She asked solemnly.
Xena weighed her answer carefully before responding, her face hardening into an unreadable mask that Gabrielle was all too familiar with.
"I don't know. Marmax is a good leader, a good soldier. He wouldn't have brought this army here if he didn't think he had a chance. Gabrielle, I don't even know how many of the Horde are out there. That's part of why no one has ever defeated them in battle. They are very good at hiding their numbers until it's too late." Xena began to pace the small tent. "I don't know what Marmax expects me to be able to do. I just got lucky last time."
"Xena, it was not just luck, and you know it. You beat them at their own game last time. You can do it again." Gabrielle reached out and grabbed Xena's arm, stopping the warrior' pacing and bringing the warrior around to face her. "I have faith in you."
Gabrielle's words reached down into Xena's soul, plucking at her waning self-confidence and strengthening it. But she still felt restless, and dinner was at least a couple of hours away.
"I hope you're right, Gabrielle. For all our sakes. I'm going to check on Argo." Xena said as she grabbed her sword and moved past the bard pulling the tent flap aside. "Don't wander too far from the tent, ok? I'll be back soon."
"Ok." Gabrielle replied, feeling once again like a small child told not to stray from home. But she had become used to Xena's overprotective nature, and really rather enjoyed the feeling of security it lent her.
The young bard busied herself with arranging her bunk for a few minutes before pulling out her scrolls and taking a seat at the desk to compose her thoughts on all she had seen that day. Lighting the lamp on the desk with a candle from across the room, Gabrielle attempted to put into words what she was feeling, but this was no ordinary scroll. What she recorded here was not epic verse, but her own personal journal.
Xena and I arrived at Marmax's camp this afternoon. Never before have I seen an army on such a grand scale. Tens of thousands of men, huddled together on this peaceful plain. Waiting. They wait for the Horde to come. An enemy I myself have seen. A foe more terrible than any other. An enemy with the power to steal one's humanity, I've seen it happen, I've seen them rip away all that makes us human, leaving nothing in their wake but a wounded soul. Yet these men seem unafraid. Do they know what's coming? Do they realize the danger?
I am afraid for them, and for Xena. More afraid than I am for myself. Xena can't see it, but I know she is the key to stopping the Horde. Xena has within her such strength and power, and I know it will be she to defeat them, once and for all.
She is afraid, I can see it in her eyes. Afraid of failure, afraid of what she became the last time we faced the Horde, afraid for me. She can't protect me from everything. I know that.
Gabrielle laid down her quill, suddenly weary of writing. The tent felt claustrophobic to her, and the bard decided to explore the camp a bit before Xena returned and it was time for the evening meal.
Gabrielle stepped out into the harsh light and the sultry heat of the late day sun. Inside the tent it had been surprisingly cool, but outside among the clustered tents the unusually humid air seemed even more oppressive. Gabrielle retrieved her staff from within the dwelling almost as an afterthought as she ventured out among the soldiers in the tents around her.
Most of the men were aware of the two women who had entered the camp that afternoon, and were aware of the General's standing orders concerning conduct around these women. As a result, the men were courteous to the young woman walking through their quarters, even polite at times, but these men were nobility, the privileged few. Gabrielle had never felt all that comfortable around people with money and power, and this was no exception. As she neared the outskirts of the officer's quarters she could hear one voice raised above all the other sounds of the bustling camp. As she rounded a corner, Gabrielle saw a group of six or seven men gathered around one young soldier who was regaling them with a story. Always eager to hear the tales of other storytellers, Gabrielle found herself drawn within the enlisted men's area, pulled by the power in the young man's voice. It was among these men that she felt most comfortable. These men could be her neighbors, her brothers, if she had had any. She had grown up with men like these.
"It was then that Perseus knew what he had to do. Taking up his polished shield, he used her reflection to guide his steps as he neared the sleeping monster Medusa. Perseus knew that one false move would cost him his life and he would become like the other men in the room, nothing more than a statue of stone, petrified by the sight of the snake haired woman.
Using his shield to guide his sword, Perseus crept upon Medusa, raised his sword, and cleaved her head from her shoulders just as she awakened to his presence. It was over. His quest successful, Perseus gathered up the head of the monster and returned to Athena's temple with his prize. The goddess was pleased with his gift to her, and vowed that he should always be under her protection." The young man concluded, his audience voicing its approval.
"Good story as always, Diomedes."
"Well told! Another tomorrow?"
"Thank you, yes, of course. Another tomorrow, I promise." The storyteller replied. He had opened his mouth to say something else when his gaze was drawn to the young woman standing at the back of his group of admirers.
Gabrielle managed to remain unnoticed until Diomedes had finished his story. Now she found herself at the center of attention as the eyes of the entire group were turned in her direction. None of these men had seen a woman outside of a tavern in weeks, let alone a young and beautiful Amazon who was now right beside them. The men, not moving, continued to stare at the bard. It was as if they feared Gabrielle was a vision, and any sound would shatter the illusion. She felt herself flush under the intense scrutiny and Gabrielle knew that she had to say something.
"Uh, hi. I didn't mean to interrupt. I was just enjoying your story." Gabrielle began, suddenly very self-conscious.
The sound of Gabrielle's voice seemed to break the spell, and Diomedes pushed his way through his friends to stand before the young woman.
"No, please. It's all right, really. You weren't interrupting." Diomedes said, pausing thoughtfully. "You're the one who travels with Xena, aren't you?"
"Yes. Yes I am. My name is Gabrielle."
"I've heard of your storytelling. I caught one of your performances in a tavern outside Appolonia once. You're wonderful!" Diomedes exclaimed, his excitement at meeting such a talented bard getting the better of him.
Gabrielle's grin widened at the compliment. "Yeah, well, so I've been told."
"We have some time before dinner. Please, tell us one of your stories." Diomedes said, his friends readily agreeing, their clamoring made it clear they would not accept no for an answer.
Never one to turn down an eager audience, Gabrielle accepted the invitation. As the men sat down on the ground at her feet, Gabrielle considered which tale to tell them. She finally decided to follow along the same lines as Diomedes and began to tell the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.
"This story begins in Athens, one of the greatest and most noble cities of ancient Greece. King Aegeus, who ruled Athens, had just welcomed home a son he had not seen since the child's birth, a youth named Theseus, who was destined to become one of Greece's greatest heroes." Gabrielle began dramatically, immediately grabbing the attention of her audience. She began to weave the tale of how Theseus had volunteered to travel to Crete to free Athens from a terrible curse.
"Every seven years, seven young men and seven maidens were taken to Crete by their King, Minos as a tribute to repay him for the death of his son. It was rumored that there existed a Labyrinth where the king placed his captives and that within this maze there lived a terrible monster called the Minotaur, with the body of a man, the head of a bull and the teeth of a lion. This monster was said to devour everyone he met.
'Let me go as one of the captives, father.' Theseus said. 'I will slay the Minotaur and free Athens from this terrible curse.'
When the ship from Crete with its black sails flying touched the shore, Theseus joined the doomed group. His father came to tell him goodbye for the last time, weeping bitterly.
'If you come back alive, lower the black sails as you approach and hoist white ones so that I may know that you did not die in the Labyrinth.' The king said.
'Do not fear, father. Look for the white sails.' Theseus told him.
The ships sailed for many days and upon reaching the shores of Crete the Athenians were taken before King Minos. The king asked why they were fifteen in number to which Theseus replied that he had come of his own free will. When asked why, the Prince replied that the people of Athens deserved to be free.
'There is a way.' Said the king. 'Slay the Minotaur and you are all free of my tribute.'
'I will slay him.' Theseus said, and as he spoke, there was a stir in the throng of chiefs and princes, and a beautiful young woman glided through them, and stood a little behind the throne. This was Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, a wise and tenderhearted maiden."
Gabrielle noticed the raised eyebrows and wide smiles on the faces of her audience at the mention of a beautiful maiden. She continued with the story as if she hadn't noticed.
"Minos was impressed with the young prince and agreed to allow him to face the Minotaur alone, but on the condition that if he could not slay it, his companions would have to follow him into the Labyrinth.
That night as Theseus was preparing for bed, he heard a soft knock at his door, and suddenly Ariadne, the king's daughter, was standing in his room. Theseus gazed into her eyes and saw there a kind of strength and compassion he had never known before.
She pleaded with Theseus to accept her gift of a dagger and to allow her to show him and his companions a way to flee. Theseus accepted the dagger, but declined her offer of freedom saying that he would rather she show him the way to the Minotaur. Ariadne relented, and gave the brave Prince a spool of golden thread instead, instructing him to tie the end of the thread to a stone near the entrance of the Labyrinth so that he may find his way back.
'Why are you doing this?' Theseus asked. 'If your father finds out you will be in great danger.'
'Yes,' Ariadne answered slowly, 'but if I had not acted, you and your friends would be in greater danger.'
The next morning Theseus was led to the Labyrinth, and as soon as the guards shut him inside, he tied on end of the thread to a pointed rock, and began to walk slowly, keeping firm hold of the string. He passed through many dark, winding passages, sometimes coming to places he had already been, but gradually descending further and further into the Labyrinth. Finally he reached a room heaped high with bones, and he knew now he was very near the beast.
From far away he heard a faint sound, like the end of the echo of a roar. Theseus listened keenly as the sound came nearer and nearer, louder and louder, not deep like the roar of a bull, but more shrill and thin. Theseus stooped quickly and scooped up a handful of dirt from the floor, and with his other hand drew his dagger.
Now the Minotaur's feet could be heard thudding along the echoing floor. There was a heavy rustling, then sniffing, then silence. Theseus moved to the shadowy corner of the path and crouched there. His heart was beating quickly. The Minotaur caught sight of the crouching figure, gave a great roar, and rushed straight for it. Theseus leaped up and, dodging to one side, dashed his handful of dirt into the beast's eyes."
Gabrielle paused to gauge the reactions of her audience. The men sat in rapt attention, hanging on her every word as she created the Labyrinth for them. They could nearly hear the roar of the Minotaur themselves and imagined their own hearts racing as the monster approached. The bard smiled slightly as she let the tension build up to the climax of the tale.
"The Minotaur bellowed in pain. It rubbed its eyes with its monstrous hands, shrieking and confused. It tossed its head up and down, and it turned around and around, feeling for the wall with its hands. It was quite blind. Theseus drew his dagger, crept up behind the monster, and quickly slashed at its legs. Down fell the Minotaur, waving its hands, and clawing at the empty air. Theseus waited for his chance, when the clutching hands rested, and then three times drove the sharp blade through the heart of the Minotaur. The body shuddered and lay still.
Theseus kneeled and thanked all the gods. When he had finished, he took his dagger and hacked off the head of the Minotaur. With the head in his hand, he began to follow the string out of the Labyrinth. He followed it anxiously, wondering if it hadn't snapped somewhere and he had lost his way after all, until at last he came to the entrance.
'I don't know what miracle caused you to come out of the Labyrinth alive,' Minos said when he saw the monster's head, 'but I will keep my word. You and your comrades may go. Now let there be peace between your people and mine.'
Theseus knew he owed his life to Ariande's courage, and he knew he couldn't leave without her. Some say he asked for her hand in marriage and the king gladly consented. Others say she stole onto the departing ship at the last minute without her father's knowledge. Either way, the two lovers were together when the anchor lifted and the dark ship sailed away from Crete.
But this happy ending is mixed with tragedy. For the Cretian captain of the vessel did not know he was to hoist white sails if Theseus came home in triumph, and King Aegeus, as he anxiously watched the waters from a high cliff, spied the black sails coming over the horizon. His heart broke at once, and he fell from the towering cliff into the sea, which is now called the Aegean."
Gabrielle had held her audience in the palm of her hand throughout her performance and when it was concluded at first there was nothing but silence. Never before had Diomedes heard a tale so skillfully told or one that evoked such emotion. He imagined himself as Theseus battling the Minotaur. At once, the men were on their feet, congratulating Gabrielle on a wonderful story and begging to hear another.
"Please, just one more."
"Now Evander, you know we've no more time for stories today." Diomedes scolded. "But maybe she could come back and tell us another tomorrow?"
Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up at the suggestion, but she had enjoyed herself. She hadn't faced such a receptive audience in some time. She looked into the expectant faces awaiting her answer, and knew she couldn't say no to them.
"Ok, ok. Same time tomorrow?" Gabrielle asked.
"Good! Yes right here tomorrow afternoon. Thank you." Diomedes replied. "I'm sorry, I never introduced myself. I'm Diomedes, this is Lycas, Evander, Antius, Marcus, Andrus, and Grathios." Diomedes said as he introduced each man in turn.
"Pleased to meet all of you. See you all tomorrow then." Gabrielle replied as she bent to retrieve her staff and headed back toward her tent. She had been gone longer than she had anticipated and by now Xena had probably returned to their quarters and would no doubt be wondering to where she had disappeared.
Continued in Chapter Two.
The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive