"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 regaled Marmax with questions. How were things going in Metoa? How was the rebuilding coming in Thessilay? 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 faced 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 warrioress 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 better yet, 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 officers 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 warrioress 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 warrioress' pacing and bringing Xena 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, not me, as she once said. 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. I don't think she does.
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 that if he could not slay it, his companions would follow him into the Labyrinth.
That night as Theseus was preparing for bed, he heard a soft knock at his door, and suddenly Ariadne, he 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 them 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. On came the Minotaur-it 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 leaped and lay still.
Theseus kneeled and thanked all the gods, and 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.