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.
As always feedback is most appreciated. You may email me at: email@example.com
Thank you for reading and enjoy.
The darkness settled over the small troupe, the silence their ally as slow progress toward the Horde camp was made. The warrioress took the lead, unsure of the skills of those who traveled with her. It was an odd group that had been assembled, but there was little time to hand pick a team, and she had had to settle for those men who were rested and at least somewhat qualified.
In addition to the men she had been able to gather, two of the Queen's royal guard had also joined them to scout the Horde encampment. Selari was making a remarkable recovery and had pleaded to be allowed to join the scouting party, but had been turned aside by more rational voices that insisted she was still too weak to make the journey. Eponin was the first to volunteer, if only to keep a firm eye on the Warrior Princess. She had seen it before, that overwhelming despair that drove some warriors to rash action. The weapon's master had no doubts that Xena could handle herself in a battle, it was her frame of mind that had her worried. The warrioress simply had a look about her that suggested that she didn't expect to be returning from this mission.
The other addition to their scouting party was Jana, a young warrior, she had proved herself capable leading the Amazons in Eponin and Ephiny's absence. Now these two, along with Xena and three men selected from Marmax's most elite soldiers made their way through the dense forests surrounding Corinth. Their progress was slow but steady, and Xena estimated that in two hours they should find themselves within sight of the Horde camp.
The silence of the trek and the ease with which they had so far been able to elude the Horde advanced scouts allowed the warrioress' mind to wander, and she found herself fantasizing the multiple ways in which she would exact her revenge for the brutal way Gabrielle had been murdered. The thought of watching Horde blood run like a river through their encampment filled her with a blood lust hotter than she had felt in over ten years. Hotter than when she had seen Lyceus murdered before her eyes. She would exact her revenge, and then she would allow the gods to claim her soul, sent to Hades to be judged for the life she had lived. There was no other options left to her. Living with this pain and torment was unthinkable.
Suddenly the underbrush parted before her, leaving Xena to stare at an open clearing nearly 100 meters across. She silently signaled for a halt and motioned for Eponin to join her at the head of the column.
The weapons master was there quickly and silently, joining Xena to gaze across the open clearing. She looked to Xena for instructions as to how the warrioress wanted to proceed.
"I don't trust it. There could be a Horde patrol just waiting for us to try to cross it." Xena paused, weighing her options. "Take Jana with you and circle to the east, I'll take the others to the west. We'll meet on the other side. If the Horde is out there, I don't' want them catching our entire force."
Eponin surveyed her intended route and then nodded once. "See you on the other side then." And just as silently as she had come, was off again, motioning to Jana to come with her to the east side of the clearing.
Xena watched them slowly make their way around the clearing, then signaled to the remaining members of the patrol and made her way to the west side. It was with some measure of relief that they all made it to the other side of the clearing without incident. Xena once again took the lead and began to make her way once more toward the Horde camp. With a single-minded determination, Xena led them to their goal, never hinting at her true goal and purpose.
It was a bare two hours later that their objective was finally within sight. With several hours of darkness left to cover their approach and eventual retreat, it seemed to the Amazons and Metoans to be a perfect plan. Xena once more motioned for Eponin to join her at the head of the column.
"What do you think, Xena? How do you want us to scout the camp?" Eponin asked.
Xena was silent for a moment, studying the patterns the guards seemed to follow on their patrols at the edges of the camp. "You and the Metoans head around the north edge of the camp, scout their positions, how many men they have ready to put into the field and how many they have in reserve. We need to know exactly what we're up against. No surprises later. You got it?"
"Yeah, I've got it...but what about you? Where will you be?" Eponin queried, her instincts suddenly screaming that something was not right here.
"I'll be to the south, doing the same. Don't worry, we'll meet right back here before the moon reaches the top of the trees, ok?" Xena replied confidently, careful not to reveal herself to the Amazon.
Eponin remained skeptical, but in truth had no choice but to follow the warrioress' orders. There could be no division of power on a mission like this, and Xena was clearly in charge. "Alright, Xena. One hour, no more or we come looking for you."
"No." Xena hissed, "there will be no heroics, Eponin. If I'm not here, then your responsibility is to the others. Ensure they make it back to Corinth, that's all that will matter then."
Eponin opened her mouth to protest, but was quickly silenced by a wave of the Warrior Princess' hand. "Don't argue with me Eponin. I mean it, if I'm not here, make sure they get back to safety."
The Amazon narrowed her eyes slightly, but grudgingly agreed, moving swiftly to gather the others and make her round of the camp. The sooner they were on their way back to Corinth, the better she'd feel.
Xena watched them disappear into the underbrush before rising smoothly to her feet and moving through the trees to the south. She hadn't gone more that 50 yards when a sound to her left brought her up short, her blade eased silently from it's sheathe. A Horde guard materialized from the brush just in front of Xena's position, more startled than anything at the sight of this armored Greek woman before him. He was dead before he could utter a sound, Xena's sword carving it's way across his throat, silencing him forever. The warrioress reveled in the sight of Horde blood pooling at her feet, coating her blade. This is only the beginning. She swore to herself. Soon the ground will run red with their blood and mine.
Eponin and the others had run into no direct interference since leaving Xena's side mere minutes ago, and were now scouting the reserve units counting men and materials as they went. Jana and Eponin each kept a mental count of the number of men, archers, pikemen, horses, and other asundry war machines that would undoubtedly be brought to bear against the Greek allied city-states at Corinth within the next two days. They had very little time to ready themselves and were unprepared for the mass of the army that now lay before them. Even with the addition of the Amazons and Centaurs there was little hope of holding out for long.
Eponin motioned to the little group and they moved once again, maneuvering for a better view of the officer's quarters. As they settled into the brush to watch for a few moments, movement caught Jana's eye and she slowly turned to capture a better look. Someone had just entered a rather ornate looking tent to her right, and the light from within had shone like a beacon for just a moment. But a momentary glimpse inside was all she had needed.
"It's not possible." Jana whispered under her breath, drawing a stern glare from Eponin. Jana turned to the weapon's master, a look of utter incredulity on her face. Eponin was slightly taken aback by the look on the younger Amazon's face and crept closer to her position for a look at whatever it was that had shocked her counterpart.
All Eponin could see was a Horde tent, more ornate than any of the others, but just a tent nonetheless. Eponin shook her head firmly and began to move away, intent upon finishing their mission and getting out of harm's way. But an insistent hand upon her arm brought her up short. Jana leaned in close, whispering in the elder Amazon's ear. "I've seen the Queen." She said simply.
"That's impossible, Ephiny is back in Corinth." Eponin whispered harshly back.
Jana shook her head vehemently. "No Pony, not Ephiny. Queen Gabrielle."
"That's impossible, Jana. Gabrielle is dead. How much could you have seen? The flap was only open for a moment."
"I know what I saw. Gabrielle is in that tent. I'm sure of it."
"You saw her body then?" Eponin asked, still not believing.
"No, Pony, she's alive. I saw her standing inside that tent. On my honor as an Amazon Warrior, she's there."
Eponin eyed the younger Amazon skeptically. Rationally she knew there was no way that Jana could have possibly seen Queen Gabrielle inside that tent, but emotionally, she needed to be certain. Jana was certain of what she had seen, and Eponin knew that if she didn't confirm what Jana had or had not witnessed inside that tent, she'd regret it for the rest of her life.
Eponin sighed in solemn defeat. "OK, ok Jana, we'll take a look. And once I prove it to you that there is no way who you saw is Gabrielle, we're getting the Tartarus out of here, you got me?"
"I got you." Jana replied seriously.
The weapon's master signaled to the two Metoan soldiers with them, filling them in on the situation and ordering them to cover their escape if necessary.
"I don't know about this Amazon. What if you're seen? We'll never make it out of here alive if they spot us." One of the men, a hardened soldier named Domacles, objected.
"Know this Metoan, we are going in there to see for ourselves if our Queen is there and alive. If she is, we're bringing her out. And one way or the other, you're going to help us. You understand?" Eponin replied heatedly, her voice a harsh whisper.
Domacles immediately backed down from the determined Amazon, suddenly sure that this was one woman he didn't want to cross. "Ok Amazon, ok. We'll be waiting here for you."
Eponin nodded once and then moved toward the tent, Jana following closely behind. Using hand signals, Eponin and Jana moved silently toward the tent, keeping a firm eye on the two Horde guards at the tent flap. Approaching the tent from the opposite side, Eponin signaled Jana to stand watch outside while she loosened the tent wall from the bottom moorings and peeked her head inside. Satisfied that no Horde guards were waiting just inside, then slipped the rest of her body under the wall and inside.
Once there, she allowed her eyes to adjust to the dim light, the far walls slowly coming into focus. Eponin took careful stock of the room she found herself in, it was small decorated with what appeared to be images of the Horde gods, such as they were. Terrible figures of skulls and coated in a red paste that looked suspiciously like dried blood lined the walls, shadows of those figures danced eerily along the walls lit by candles at regular intervals in sconces hung from the tent supports. Through the doorway, a brighter light shone. A doorway that led to a larger chamber that was inhabited by at least three people that Eponin could easily discern. Two were standing behind the third, who was kneeling facing the far wall, away from the Amazon.
Try as she might, the weapon's master could not see the kneeling figure's face, but knew that this was the person she had come to see. One way or the other, she needed to know for certain if this was Queen Gabrielle. The figure was dressed in a white cloak, a large cowl drawn over the head. The two who attended the kneeling figure were obviously Horde warriors, dressed in the traditional Horde garb and carrying Horde battle-axes. One of them grunted what seemed to be an order to the cloaked occupant of the room, and the figure rose to unsteady feet and turned toward the doorway that concealed the Amazon warrior.
What Eponin saw nearly made her gasp aloud. There before her, dressed as one of the Horde was her beloved Queen, Gabrielle, very much alive. Then the three were moving toward the room where Eponin was hidden, and the weapon's master saw her opportunity. Easing her dagger from the sheathe at her waist, Eponin waited until Gabrielle had cleared the doorway and then tensed for the attack. Lunging at the first guard through the doorway, Eponin killed him with a silent pull of the dagger across his throat, easing him to the ground before turning on the second warrior.
Eponin realized that he was simply too far away for her to dispatch quickly and without him raising an alarm. In the blink of an eye, she had flipped the dagger in her hand so that she now gripped the blade and hurled it toward the remaining Horde guard, impaling him through the throat, effectively silencing him. The guard sank slowly to his knees, a look of complete startlement on his face. Eponin caught his body and lowered him soundlessly to the dirt floor, mindful of any noise that would alert the guards outside.
The Amazon then turned her complete attention to Gabrielle, who had not moved of her own volition as of yet. Eponin gently gripped the smaller woman's shoulder and turned her slowly around. What she saw in the eyes before her stopped her cold. There was nothing. No light within those green orbs, no hint of any recognition, not even a glimmer that she was aware of what had just happened.
"Queen Gabrielle?" Eponin asked hesitantly, but there was no response, not even a flutter of her eyelashes to indicate she had even heard Eponin's voice. "Gabrielle, we have to get out of here, now. There is no time." Eponin took the young woman firmly by the shoulders and led her toward the tent wall she had loosened to gain entrance to the chamber. The Amazon warrior led her Queen under the tent wall and into the cool night air beyond.
Jana watched as Eponin crawled out from underneath the canvas and her heart sank, but then the older warrior reached back inside the tent and pulled the young Queen out as well. Jana released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding when Gabrielle emerged from the tent. Eponin hurriedly waved her to the forest, unwilling to remain this close to the Horde camp any longer than absolutely necessary.
They had barely taken two steps toward where the other members of their party were lying in wait when the sounds of battle reached their ears. Swords clashing and cries rising through the air reached them, and to the Amazons it sounded as if the battle was drawing closer to them.
"By the Gods, what is that?" Eponin demanded, looking back over her shoulder, trying to see just what in Tartarus was going on.
"Are they attacking?" Jana asked uncertainly.
"No. That's inside the camp. They aren't attacking, they're being attacked! Come on, we need to get the Queen out of here."
The two Amazons led Gabrielle to the relative safety of the surrounding trees and the two waiting Metoan soldiers.
"What's going on out there?" Domacles demanded. "What did you start?"
"It wasn't us." Eponin assured him. "I'm not sure..." Just then a battle cry rang out above the sounds of battle. A cry that was unmistakable in it's ululating distinctness. "Xena. Damn. What in Tartarus does she think she's doing?" Eponin scowled, her mind racing.
"I knew she was upset about Gabrielle, but you don't think she'd really try something like this would she?" Jana asked, the fear evident in her voice.
"Well, sounds to me like she just did try something. And it's likely to get her killed. Ok ok, just let me think for a minute here." Eponin's brow furrowed in thought. There's a way out of this, so find it! She ordered herself.
Jana finally took a moment to study the Queen carefully, amazed that the normally talkative woman had been completely silent throughout this entire conversation. The young warrior reached out a tentative hand to touch Gabrielle on the arm, and was again surprised that she showed no signs of being aware that anything was happening.
"Pony, what's wrong with Gabrielle? What did they do to her?"
Eponin turned to gaze at the Queen. "I'm not sure, but I do know that we have to get her out of here, and I don't think she can do it on her own. Alright, here it is. Jana, you and Domacles get Gabrielle back to Corinth anyway you can." Eponin then turned to the second Metoan. "You, what's your name again?"
"Therates." He replied simply.
"Therates, you and I are going after Xena before the damned fool gets herself killed. I get the feeling the Queen needs her alive right now." Eponin nodded to Jana, urging her to action then rising to her feet. "We'll meet you back at Corinth."
"Be careful Pony, I don't want to have to explain to Ephiny what happened to you."
"You be careful yourself. We'll see you soon."
Jana's tone of voice brought the weapon's master up short, and she turned back to face the younger warrior.
"Be sure she knows. If she doesn't, you'll never bring her back."
"I know, Jana, I know. I just pray we get to her in time." And with that the Amazon disappeared into the darkened forest.