THE GATHERING STORM
Xena arrived at Argo's stable and found her mare watered and brushed and now contentedly munching on some hay and oats. Xena approached the great war-horse and laid a loving hand on her neck, stroking her and speaking softly into the horse's ear.
Xena knew she had left their tent rather abruptly and reminded herself to apologize to Gabrielle for treating her like a child. Xena was fully aware that Gabrielle was most certainly no longer a child. She wasn't even the naive young woman who had followed her two years ago. But was she up to the challenge of what lay ahead in the coming days? Xena could only pray that she was. Just as Gabrielle had faith in Xena, so the warrioress had faith in the bard. Gabrielle possessed a level of inner strength and courage that Xena admired greatly. Gabrielle had seen cruelty and had faced hate, yet she remained true to herself. But how much could one person take before it became too much?
The strain of caring for the wounded Athenians the last time they faced the Horde had taken it's toll on Gabrielle and Xena could not and would not put her through that pain again. But she couldn't exactly allow Gabrielle to follow her into the battle either. Xena knew it was not in the bard's nature to stand by and do nothing, so she was faced with a unique problem, what to do with her?
Perhaps Marmax can find something safe for her to do during the battle. Something on the headquarters staff, away from the fighting. Xena resolved to speak with Marmax that evening about it. Satisfied that Argo was being well cared for, Xena decided to briefly survey the camp defenses before returning to her quarters for the evening meal.
Xena walked slowly among the men, making her way to the perimeter of the camp and the edge of the treeline surrounding the narrow plain. She could see above her sentries posted along the ridgeline to the west and knew that beyond the ridge in the forests surrounding the valley were roving patrols similar to the one she and Gabrielle had encountered earlier that day. Everywhere she looked, men had their eyes trained on the trees around them, while others dozed next to them. At times she could see them switch roles so that there were always a fresh set of eyes on the lookout.
Xena followed the contour of the trees that ringed two sides of the area to the west and north, and could see that preparations were being made for the upcoming assault. Men were readying pikes and lances, sharpening swords, and digging trenches in which to hide their numbers. The ridges to the west and east formed a natural cut in the landscape that narrowed the direction from which the Horde might attack. Marmax had chosen this ground well. With regiments posted along the ridges looking down on them and a division of men left to defend the cut, they seemed well prepared to deal with whatever size force the Horde attempted to bring into battle. Satisfied for now, Xena made her way toward the officer's encampment to find Gabrielle.
Xena returned to the tent they had been assigned, pulled back the flap and stepped inside. She was only mildly surprised to find that Gabrielle was not there and stepped back outside to locate her friend.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called, but received no response. Xena walked a few steps away from the tent, but realized that without knowing which direction Gabrielle had taken, she would be rather difficult to locate. Xena noticed a young officer sitting outside his quarters sharpening his sword and decided perhaps someone had seen the bard leave.
"Excuse me, lieutenant, did you see a young woman carrying a staff leave that tent over there?" Xena asked.
The officer raised his head from his work, his eyes widening at the sight of the six-foot Warrior Princess glaring down at him. He rose hurriedly to his feet as if the General himself was standing in front of him.
"Yes ma'am. She left about an hour ago, headed off toward the enlisted men's area." He replied.
Xena's eyes narrowed in response to the lieutenant's report and fought to repress her anger at Gabrielle for not realizing the danger presented in camp. Not that I really explained the danger either. She's never been in a situation like this before. We'll have to have a long talk when I find her.
"Thanks." Xena replied simply, turning in the direction Gabrielle had taken.
The lieutenant's voice brought Xena around.
"Are you here to help us defeat the Horde?" He asked hopefully.
Xena considered his question for a moment. Was she? Could she do it? Did she have what they needed to overcome the Horde? Xena could see the man needed some reassurance. He needed to know that there was hope for victory, otherwise he would be useless as a leader on the battlefield. If he was to enable his men to believe they had a chance, he had to believe.
"Yes, well, I'm not here to lose, now am I?"
The lieutenant smiled at Xena's wry humor. "No ma'am."
Xena returned the grin with a slight smile of her own before continuing in her pursuit of the bard. She found Gabrielle just a few minutes later walking toward her on her way back to the tent.
Gabrielle saw Xena striding toward her, a slight scowl on her face. Xena hadn't seen her yet, and Gabrielle could see the faint traces of worry in Xena's eyes. As they moved toward each other, Xena's attention was drawn to the bobbing of Gabrielle's staff and was reassured to have found her friend safe. Gabrielle watched as the look of relief washed briefly across Xena's features, so fleeting that had she not been looking, she would have missed it.
As she neared the bard, Xena made a conscious decision not to berate her for her wandering off. Gabrielle was an adult and it was time she started treating her as one.
"Gabrielle, I was looking for you. It's almost time for supper."
If Xena had said the sky was green, Gabrielle would not have been more shocked. Normally the warrioress would have launched into a ten minute lecture about listening to her when she told her to do something, or not do something, as the case may be. Then she would say that she was only looking out for the young woman's safety. Maybe she's actually starting to see me as a woman, as an equal. Gabrielle decided not to comment on Xena's sudden change in attitude.
"Sorry, Xena. I didn't realize it had gotten so late."
Xena turned to walk alongside Gabrielle as they returned to their quarters. They walked in silence for a few moments before Xena's curiosity got the best of her.
"So, where were you, anyway?" She hoped the question would sound like a simple inquiry from a friend, and not an accusation.
"Telling stories, actually. I met a bard here who tells a wonderful story, so I stopped to listen, and they asked me if I would tell one. So I did."
"So who is this bard?"
"His name is Diomedes. I think he's just a soldier, Athenian from his uniform. He told a wonderful rendition of the story of Perseus and Medusa." Gabrielle said enthusiastically, her admiration for this bard showing. "They tell stories to each other every afternoon before the evening meal. They asked me to join them again tomorrow."
The invitation worried Xena. She didn't like the idea of Gabrielle venturing among the enlisted men alone. She decided that now was a good time to impress upon Gabrielle the dangers that the enlisted men could pose, but how to do so without sounding like she was forbidding the bard from seeing her new friends?
"Gabrielle, I'm not going to tell you not to go and see them tomorrow, but the enlisted camp can be a very rough place. Many men who end up in armies like this one are not nice people. They sometimes take military service instead of prison time for crimes like stealing or getting into bar fights."
"Xena, I'll be careful. I promise." Gabrielle replied.
"I know you will. I just wanted you to be aware of the dangers, ok?"
Gabrielle smiled and nodded, the fact that Xena had not ordered her to stay away from Diomedes and her other new friends making her feel even more like an equal.
As the two women approached their tent, they noticed a Metoan officer standing outside waiting for them.
"Xena." He said, saluting. "The General has ordered that I escort the both of you to the officer's mess."
Xena nodded slightly as he turned and led them in the direction of the mess tents. She could smell them before she could see them, the air suddenly filled with the sounds and smells of hundreds of men taking their turn at the chow line.
The mess tents were placed directly in between the officer's quarters and the enlisted quarters, with separate tents for each. The officer's tent was slightly larger, with long tables and benches set up so that the men may take their meals together. The enlisted tent, however, was nothing more than a long table set up with large vats of stew and numerous loaves of hard crusted bread. Each man was given a bowl of stew and a hunk of bread and sent off to claim a place on the ground with his comrades and eat.
As they approached the mess lines, a ripple passed through the enlisted men. They had been informed that two women were joining the fight and that the commanding General had ordered that they conduct themselves in a fashion that brought honor to their units. Most of the men heeded this order, knowing that to disobey meant a public whipping and confinement in the stockade. But the General couldn't order them not to look.
Xena noticed the stir that their entrance had made, but also noted that the men seemed to be well disciplined. No one made any move toward them, but merely followed them with their eyes. She made a mental note to compliment Marmax on his troops.
Gabrielle had also noticed the amount of attention they were receiving and decided to follow Xena's lead and do nothing. She followed the Metoan officer until they were standing before the entrance to the officer's mess when she noticed a soldier waving his arms above his head to get her attention. Stopping and turning to get a better look at him, Gabrielle recognized Diomedes and Lycas from earlier that afternoon.
"Diomedes!" Gabrielle called, returning his wave.
Xena turned as Gabrielle called out, catching the bard's arm as she started to head off in the direction of her new friends.
"Gabrielle, who are they?" Xena asked.
"That's Diomedes and Lycas. I met them this afternoon. Come on, I want to introduce you." Gabrielle said as she dragged her friend off in the direction of the enlisted tent.
Diomedes and Lycas seemed more than a little intimidated by the sight of the Warrior Princess heading toward them, but tried to downplay their reactions. It wouldn't help their life in camp, or their reputations, to be seen quaking in front of two women, even if one of them had been one of the greatest warlords who had ever lived.
"Diomedes, Lycas, this is Xena. Diomedes is the bard I told you about, Xena." Gabrielle said, making her introductions.
"Diomedes. Lycas" Xena said, nodding her head slightly.
"Xena." Diomedes said simply, his face brightening as he turned to face Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, join us for dinner, won't you?"
The change in Diomedes was not lost on Xena, but Gabrielle barely seemed to notice.
"I don't know, what do you think Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's up to you, Gabrielle. Just remember what we talked about earlier, ok?" Xena replied. Here it was, the true test of just how much she trusted Gabrielle to take care of herself. Xena just hoped she was doing the right thing.
"I remember, Xena. I'll see you back at our quarters later." Gabrielle said smiling.
Xena nodded and watched as Gabrielle struck up a conversation with Lycas as they headed off in the direction of the chow line, Diomedes trailing slightly behind. Xena reached out and grabbed the young soldier by the arm, pulling him up short.
"I'm trusting you to look out for her. I would be VERY upset if anything happened to Gabrielle." Xena said menacingly, speaking into his ear.
Diomedes blanched visibly. "I won't let anything happen to her, Xena. You have my word as an member of the Athenian Army, I will protect her."
"I'm counting on you Diomedes." Xena replied, releasing his arm. "Don't tell her of any of this."
Diomedes nodded once and then jogged to catch up to Lycas and Gabrielle.
Xena knew she should trust Gabrielle to take care of herself, but letting go of her protectiveness over the young woman was proving to be rather difficult, and she figured it was better to impress upon Diomedes her wishes that Gabrielle remain safe than be sorry later that she hadn't. Xena watched them for a moment before turning to the Metoan officer and gesturing for him to lead the way.
Xena was led to a long rectangular table against the far wall of the mess tent at which sat Marmax and three of his commanders, one Metoan, one Athenian, and the other Thessilian. The sight of the two former enemies now conferring to defeat a common enemy caused Xena to smile inwardly. Her escort approached the table, saluted the General and then stood at attention, waiting to be dismissed.
Marmax returned the salute and dismissed the officer.
"Xena, come sit with us." Marmax said, waving at an empty seat next to him. "Where is Gabrielle?" He asked, worry lining his face.
"She decided to eat with some new friends." Xena replied.
"Are you sure that's wise? You know what it's like in campů"
"Don't worry, Marmax. I trust Gabrielle. She'll be fine." Xena reassured as she moved to take the seat next to the General.
Marmax wasn't at all convinced, but decided to defer to Xena's judgement, knowing that she would never let any harm come to the bard.
"Actually, I wanted to speak with you about Gabrielle." Xena said. "I was hoping you might have some position on your command staff for her during the battle. Something to keep her back from the front lines."
"I'm sure my adjutant could use someone to read the incoming reports from my division commanders in the field and pass on only the most important information, or someone to write out responses. Yes I'm sure I can find something for her where she'll be safe." Marmax responded.
An aide arrived with a tray laden with food and began to set the table with the evening meal. The General helped himself to the evening's fare while turning to speak to Xena over his shoulder.
"Xena, we were just discussing the ridges to the west and east. Colonel Typhon has suggested that they are undermanned and wants to use our reserve from the center of our lines to reinforce the flanks on the ridges. What do you think?"
"No, the ridges are secure enough. The Horde are not the subtlest of warriors. They attack with overwhelming numbers and they usually come straight ahead. It's not in their nature to attack the flanks, but they usually attack only forces smaller than their own. What makes you think they will attack here?" Xena said as she reached to fill her plate.
"Our reconnaissance has reported that they have been much bolder since their encounter with you and the Athenians at their outpost. But they also report that they seem to have been reinforced and are now nearly 30,000 strong." Marmax replied somberly.
"30,000?" Xena asked incredulously. "Are you sure? I have never heard of them amassing such numbers before."
"It's been reported by more than one source, and the reports were confirmed just recently. They are definitely gearing up for something big." Marmax said.
Xena considered the gravity of what Marmax had said. If the Horde were truly gathering such a large force, they may not have a chance after all. From her estimates the allies had maybe 40,000 men, and against 30,000 Horde warriors that may not be enough.
Suddenly there was a great deal of commotion near the entrance to the tent. A young soldier, not much older than Gabrielle, came crashing through the flap demanding to see the commanding General. The soldier was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily as if he had run miles without stopping to get there. Two of the guards at the door attempted to stop the young man, but he could not be silenced.
"Please!" He pleaded. "I must see General Marmax, it's urgent!"
Upon hearing this, Marmax rose to his feet and bade the soldier to approach his table. Xena watched all of this intently, the beginnings of fear starting to tickle at the back of her mind. Xena fiercely clamped down on her feelings, now was not the time.
The soldier approached the General and saluted, the bright sheen of sweat upon his brow speaking not only of exertion, but also of a great fear.
"General Marmax." He began. "The enemy is on the move. The patrols to the north and west report mass movement by the Horde in this general direction." The soldier said breathlessly, anxious to deliver his message and then return to his unit.
Marmax did not immediately respond to the report, but considered his next order very carefully, the decisions he made over the next few hours could be crucial to the survival of his army and the outcome of the battle that lay ahead. Xena had come to her feet beside him, and now waited patiently for his orders, but Marmax could see that she was tensed like a coiled spring, ready to strike, ready for battle.
"Thank you soldier, you are dismissed to your commanding officer. You have done well." Marmax began. "Colonel Typhon, Colonel Adrastus, assemble your men. You will come fall in with the Corinthians already in place in the center of our lines. My Metoan infantry will held in reserve behind the center lines. Meet me in my command tent in two hours to discuss the final battle plans." Marmax paused, and saw that no one had yet to move from their places.
"Move!" He ordered. At his command, the tent emptied quickly, leaving only Marmax and Xena. The General turned to Xena, a stricken look on his face. It was a look that Xena had seen many times before, a look that she herself had worn more than once; a look of a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders and wasn't sure if he was strong enough to bear the load.
Xena laid her hand briefly on the General's shoulder. "I'm going to find Gabrielle. We'll meet you in your tent in an hour. There are some things I think we should discuss before you meet with the other men."
Marmax nodded as Xena left his side his mind reeling from the news. He had known that the Horde would attack soon, but he had hoped for more time. He could only pray that their preparations were enough.
Xena walked through the ranks of men searching intently for Gabrielle. Time was of the essence, and she needed to find the young bard quickly so that she might prepare her for the coming battle before the warrioress was needed elsewhere. Gabrielle had never seen a battle on this scale before and Xena wanted to prepare her, at least in some small way, for what she would be seeing over the next several days.
As she rounded a small cluster of tents, Xena spotted Gabrielle sitting with a group of four men, talking and laughing. Gabrielle was sitting with her back to the warrioress, and didn't see her approach. It was not until the others had stopped speaking to gape at the Warrior Princess striding purposefully toward them that Gabrielle realized that something was wrong. She turned to look over her shoulder at what could demand her friends' attention so completely. Gabrielle saw the look of determination on Xena's face and immediately became alarmed. She regained her feet as Xena closed the distance between them.
"Xena? What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Gabrielle. Something's come up. You need to come with me, now." Xena began but she was cut off by the sound of officers and sergeants calling their men to formation.
"Fall in men! Fall in by company and regiment! Fall in!"
"It's ok, Gabrielle. We have to go." Diomedes said hurriedly as he stooped to gather up his short sword. "We'll see you again soon!" He called over his shoulder as he raced to join his unit.
"Xena, what's happened?" Gabrielle asked as she gazed at the activity springing up all around her. Everywhere she looked men were racing to grab discarded uniforms and weapons and running to fall into their formations.
"Not here, Gabrielle. Come on, we've got some things to take care of." Xena replied, taking Gabrielle by the arm and leading her back toward the officer's encampment.