DISCLAIMER: Once again, for those of you who know me from the Pub, my handle there is XWPWarrioress..:-) 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.
This story is also rather lengthy, and by far my most ambitious undertaking to date. If you, by some miracle, are able to sit down and read this in one sitting, e-mail me and tell me about it, you're someone I just have to meet! :-)
Now for some well deserved thank you's! First, as always, to my husband Robert, who never once told me I couldn't do this. I love you, baby.
Second, and equally important, a HUGE thank you to my editor, Anon. Without her "puppy dog eyes" and many words of encouragement this story would never have been finished. But I still claim at least a co-crown for the title of Procrastination Princess! ;-) Anon, you are an amazing storyteller and a good friend, and I only hope I can return the favor one day.
Also, many thanks to the M&M Mars Company for creating an ambrosia on earth, Starburst Jelly Beans! Without the sugar rush from these tiny pieces of heaven I never would have been able to stay awake some nights to put all of this down!
And finally to the Microsoft Corporation for their fabulous word processing program, Microsoft Word97. Never underestimate the value of a good word processor! :-)
Ok, I think that's all. Enjoy reading, I hope this helps those of you suffering from the more extreme cases of XWS!
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
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. She fought with such bravery! Surely she 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.
And what of the small one? The prophets told of a strange woman who was destined to become a beacon to the tribes of the Horde, could this young one, 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 who was requesting an audience with his leader, and this surprised several of the 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, forced to fight the warrior woman he had seen at the fortress near the river. He was certain that the two 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.
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 Thessilay, and had learned of his success at brokering a lasting peace between Metoa and Thessilay. Now he was at the head of an allied army of Athenians, Corinthians, Metoans, and Thessilians that was rumored to be amassing to face a foe the likes of which few had ever seen.
Deep in her heart, Xena knew this enemy, but hoped that if she refrained from naming it, the enemy and it's threat may simply cease to exist. But if she dared speak the name of this menace aloud, it would suddenly be there facing her, and this time it would consume them all.
The Horde! Her mind screamed. The last time she and Gabrielle had faced the Horde, she had nearly lost herself to the fear and anger that had coursed unchecked through her fragile soul. Not only that, but she had nearly lost her best friend as well, both literally and figuratively. Her rash actions and inability to express her fear and anger in any other way except through death and violence had forced Gabrielle into some rather rash action of her own.
Action that I pushed her to. If it weren't for me pushing her to see the cold hard truth of war and death she might never have taken such incredible chances with her life! If anything had happened to her at the hands of the Horde… Xena let the thought trail off. She knew what would have happened had the Horde killed Gabrielle when she ventured from the safety of the fortress to give water to the wounded. She would have charged out among the Horde warriors, killing as many as she could before their sheer numbers would have overwhelmed her and she was killed herself. Xena knew, right down to the depths of her soul, that she would have welcomed death at that point, welcomed the release from the pain, sorrow, and guilt. Yes, the guilt would have been the worst of it all, knowing that she would have somehow been responsible for Gabrielle's death.
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 on 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 warrioress 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 Thessilay 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 her 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, it's 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 warrioress, 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 about the table she did recognize. The woven leather of the Athenian Commander, the black and red dyed uniform of the Thessilian, these two men the bard had never met, but the forth 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 Thessilay. 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 it's 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 a few months ago, 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.