THE FIRST DAY OF BATTLE
It had been nearly a full cycle of the moon since Telmark had made his announcement that they would pursue the Chosen One and bring her back among her Horde brethren. Since that time, messengers had been dispatched to all the Horde warriors wherever they may be ordering them to converge approximately one day's journey north of the Greek city of Corinth. Two weeks after the message went out, the men began arriving until now they numbered nearly 30,000.
Telmark had met with his commanders on several occasions to plan their strategy for conquering the Greeks and recovering the Chosen One. The battle plan was simple, they knew from experience that the One traveled with a warrior woman of some skill, so Telmark had ordered that they systematically attack every Greek city south of their current position, starting with Corinth. They would work their way through the Greek countryside, hoping to draw the Chosen One and her warrior toward them. If the prophecies were true, the Chosen One would find them.
Until that fateful day at the Athenian outpost, Telmark had never put much faith in the prophecies. He had heard the tales since he was a small boy, recited faithfully by the priests of the Temple of Arimon the God of Prophecy and Healing. For hundreds of years his people had waited for the coming of the Chosen One, a woman with singular courage and vision to lead them forward into the future. But Telmark had difficulty, even as a child, in putting his faith in a fantastic Chosen One, choosing rather to follow the edicts of Kempoch, the God of War.
The priests of Kempoch preached of the power of the one, the power of self to reign over all. They preached to look within and find Kempoch in the warrior's heart that beat within the chest of every Horde man. The priests of Kempoch had long argued the validity of the prophecy of the Chosen One with the priests of Arimon, and that argument had divided the Horde people for several years. It wasn't until the last two years that the followers of Arimon had begun to lose faith in the Chosen One. Months of drought and the recent deaths of the women and children at the hands of the Greeks had convinced many of the faithful that the Chosen One would never come to deliver them from this torture, never carry them to the future. It was then that the ranks of Kempoch's followers had grown considerably.
But now, with the possible discovery of the true Chosen One of the prophecy, all of that had changed. The former followers of Arimon now began to have faith in their patron god once again, causing the old strife to come to the forefront once again. Telmark was faced with the daunting task of pleasing both sides of the argument, and knew that the only way to do so, was to bring the Greek woman to his people so that her true worth might be discovered. The prophecy described a ritual cleansing, where all that she had been would be washed away, leaving only her true soul in place. It was that soul that would be tested and judged as that of the Chosen One.
Telmark was unconcerned with the mechanics of the prophecy, right now his only worry was finding her and bringing her here. Now that his entire force was gathered and ready, Telmark had ordered that they begin their march on Corinth. That was a day ago, and they had covered perhaps a quarter the distance to the city when his advance scouts had reported sighting a Greek army entrenched in the only pass from their current position leading to the city. To avoid them would mean adding precious days onto their march backtracking and working their way around the entrenched army.
Telmark had immediately called a halt in their advance to send out a more sizeable scouting force to determine the exact strength of the Greek army. That reconnaissance information had just been delivered to him and he was about to join his commanders to discuss their options.
As Telmark entered the hut, his commanders all came to their feet and saluted, standing at attention until he had made his way to his chair and seated himself. His men relaxed, but remained standing out of respect for their leader. Telmark waved them to their seats as he revealed what he had learned of the Greek position.
"Be seated, honored warriors of Kempoch. The scouts have reported that the Greeks have taken up position in the cut north of the city, perhaps half a day's journey from here. They have two regiments posted on the ridges surrounding the area and what appears to be at least a division of men at the center." Telmark paused to gauge the reaction of his men. They were all looking to him expectantly, and he could see the excitement in their eyes. This was what the warriors of Kempoch lived for, the glory of battle against their mortal enemies.
"We will march on their position at first light. Two divisions led by Sidon will attack the ridge positions to distract them from the main force, which will attack the center. I will be leading the main attack." Telmark said.
"Tomorrow we march into battle for the glory of Kempoch and the honor of our people!" Telmark said forcefully. "Now, see to your men. I want all in readiness by nightfall."
Telmark's men rose to their feet as one, saluted and left the hut, leaving the leader alone with his thoughts. The Greeks had managed to gather an impressive force to meet him and his warriors, but he had faith in Kempoch and in his men. They would defeat the Greeks and reclaim their Chosen One. He still wasn't sure if he truly believed in the prophecy, but if there was a chance that this woman could help his people, then he would risk anything to bring her to them.
His strategy was simply to do what the Greeks would not expect. Telmark's predecessors had always attacked their enemies head on, in full force, but he had other ideas, radical ideas. Telmark had observed the Greeks and their battle tactics on more than one occasion and had seen the effectiveness of attacking the flanks to draw men away from the center of the lines, he only hoped that this tactic could work for his troops as well. No, those Greek fools will expect us to only attack the center, as we always have in the past. It will work. It must. Telmark rose and approached the shrine in the corner of his hut. Surrounding the traditional figurine of Kempoch were several candles, both lit and unlit.
Telmark reached for a small candle standing by itself off to the side of the shrine. As his hand closed around it's waxy surface, Telmark could feel the stirrings of his warrior blood. He spoke aloud the prayers of those about to enter into battle and prayed to Kempoch for strength and guidance in the coming days and he prayed that he might bring glory to Kempoch and victory to his people.
Telmark allowed himself to relax as the priests had taught him, to allow the spirits of the honored dead to flow through him, lending him the wisdom of their experience and their strength. As he recited the mantras silently to himself, he could feel the souls of those long dead warriors coming to join him. The Horde leader took one deep cleansing breath, then another, opening his mind to those who sought contact with him. He could feel their energy flowing through him, but something was different this time. He had performed this ritual several times in the past, but tonight it felt even more powerful, more stimulating.
At once Telmark knew to his very core what was happening. It is Kempoch! He has come to me! Telmark thought, as he struggled to maintain his trance. Kempoch, come to me, I beseech you. Guide my hand that I may serve you! Suddenly Telmark felt as though his entire body was attuned to the forces around him as he sensed the presence of the great God of War. It was like nothing the prophets had ever described, as the God's spirit filled Telmark's mind.
Telmark, leader of my honored warriors. I have come to you, to guide your hand in crushing the Greek vermin! Telmark could sense the words rather than hear them, but the images were as clear as if the God were standing before him speaking as any mortal man would.
I am but your humble servant, O Great Kempoch. Guide me in what I must do to free my people from their tyranny. Telmark replied.
You will face them at daybreak, Telmark. Your strategy is a sound one. You will not fail. You will defeat them in battle.
Telmark's heart swelled with the thought of defeating the Greeks, once and for all, but the God of War perceived his pride and quickly dispelled it.
Do not be overconfident, Telmark. Your victory tomorrow is not secure. But know that I will be with you. Long live the Horde! And with a rush, the God left him. Telmark's eyes snapped open suddenly, his heart pounding in his ears, his breathing ragged. The Great Kempoch had bestowed his blessings on him and this campaign and he vowed not to fail him.
Telmark rose from the altar and made his way into the dark cloak of night that surrounded the camp. He moved among his warriors, watching them as they performed ritual cleansing before battle, honed their weapons to a sharp edge, and adorned their faces with the bright colors meant to instill fear in the hearts of their enemies. The patterns of the markings on each warrior's face had been revealed to him in a daylong ceremony that marked the passage from boyhood to manhood, and acceptance into the tribe as a warrior. Unique to each man, the last act before a battle was to apply this pattern to his face as he prepared himself for the battle that could take him into the waiting arms of Kempoch, and into the legions of the honored dead.
Telmark knew what these men were capable of, and he only hoped that he would prove strong enough to lead them tomorrow. Doubt would always tease at the corners of the warrior's heart. He wanted nothing more than to free his people from the Greek incursion and fulfill the wishes of Kempoch.
Xena and Gabrielle had returned to their tent, where Xena had explained that the Horde had been sighted only a few hours away. They both knew what was going to happen in the morning, and neither knew what to say.
"Gabrielle, Marmax has a position for you on his command staff, helping to read messages from the front lines and then passing them along with only the most important information." Xena said, unsure of the bard's reaction. She was doing it again, treating Gabrielle like someone who needed protection, but Xena knew that she would be useless on the battlefield if she was constantly worrying about the young woman.
"Xena, please, don't do this. Don't send me away." Gabrielle said.
"Gabrielle, we've been over this before. I can't fight them effectively if I'm not focused on what I'm doing, and I can't focus if I'm worrying about where you are." Xena said determinedly. "Gabrielle, please, for me. Stay back where you'll be safe."
"Xena, I… can't I be of some good…" Gabrielle began, but then stopped. The look of pleading on Xena's face was more than she could take. "Ok. Ok, Xena. I'll do it. I'm not happy about it. But I'll do it."
"Gabrielle, please understand, I don't want you to feel that I think you can't handle this, but in a battle people are killed," Xena paused, unsure of how to put her feelings into words. "People are killed, and are forced to kill, that's just the nature of war. And I don't want to put you in a situation where you would be faced with that choice, to kill or be killed. I don't think I could live with the consequences of what I know you would choose."
The bard considered Xena's words and knew them to be true. She could never take a life, not even if her own depended on it. Xena reached out and drew Gabrielle into a deep embrace. They remained that way for several moments before Gabrielle drew away.
"Just promise me that we'll walk out of here together." Gabrielle said, her eyes betraying the fear in her heart.
"I promise, Gabrielle. Together." Xena said sincerely before giving the bard's shoulder a final squeeze. "Marmax is expecting me. We'll probably be up for several hours yet working on the final preparations for tomorrow. Try to get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning." Xena said as she turned and left the tent, leaving Gabrielle alone with her thoughts, and her fears.
Xena and Marmax had remained in the command tent until long after the other men had retired to their units to get some much needed sleep before the coming battle. The scouts had continued to report on the Horde position, and as of nightfall, the army had made camp approximately four hours steady march from their current position.
Xena had met with Marmax before the other men had joined them and had pointed out several points in their defense where they might take better advantage of the terrain, or where a particular unit might be better deployed. Marmax was impressed with Xena's singular vision, since she had only been in their camp for less than a day.
Now with daybreak a few short hours away, Xena and Marmax agreed to retire for the night to get as much sleep as they could. With their scouts in place, they were confident that they would have sufficient warning of any movement by the enemy.
Xena returned to her quarters tired and worried. Would it be enough? Had she done all that she could to prepare Marmax and his men for what lay over the ridge?
As she pulled aside the flap and entered the tent, Xena was surprised to see Gabrielle still awake and sitting at the desk writing by the pale light cast by the small lamp. Gabrielle looked up from her scroll as Xena entered the tent.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing still up?" Xena asked.
"I wanted to get some things down in my scrolls, I guess I didn't realize how late it had gotten." Gabrielle said, laying down her quill.
"Well, it is very late, and dawn will be here all too soon. Come on, let's try to get some sleep." Xena said as she moved toward her bunk, removing her weapons and leathers and stretching out on top of the cool blanket.
Gabrielle rose from the desk and picking up the lamp walked to her own bunk and made herself ready for sleep. As she crawled under the rough blanket, Gabrielle stole a glance at Xena, who appeared to already be asleep.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"This is going to be worse than at the outpost, isn't it?"
Xena opened her eyes and turned her head to look at her friend. "Yes, Gabrielle. It is."
Gabrielle nodded silently, her mind already filled with anxiety over what was to come with the dawn. Many mornings she had enjoyed seeing the sunrise, watching as the sun's rays touched upon the land, breathing life into the world. Now she prayed for a never-ending night, for the rising sun brought the Horde.
Dawn broke, and a deep gray fog enshrouded the whole of the Corinthian plain. Thick and impenetrable, it lay blanketed across the earth like a shroud. Night crept back from the pale golden light of the rising sun, and when the night had retreated, the mist seemed to come awake, rolling and churning it's way between the ridgelines, obscuring all that lay within it's grasp.
The allied army awoke early, the tension palpable as the men made their way to their assigned posts. And with the coming of the dawn, all knew that the Horde army was near, knew that their fate was now in the hands of their commanders and the gods. Each had found a new determination to defeat the Horde threat once and for all, to protect their homeland and their families.
Xena and Gabrielle had joined Marmax and his staff in the command tent shortly before the sun's first rays broke over the landscape. Sleep had not come easily to either woman, and now they both fought to keep the dull haze of sleepiness from distracting them from the tasks at hand. Marmax had introduced Gabrielle to his adjutant, Lieutenant Maro. The two would be working very closely together, gathering the battlefield correspondences and forwarding them to either Xena or the General. The Lieutenant was a handsome young Metoan officer, tall and slender with a gentle nature, soft-spoken and sincere, and not at all what Gabrielle had come to expect of an infantry officer.
"Lieutenant, this is Gabrielle, she will be assisting you for the next several days." Marmax said. "Gabrielle, this is Lieutenant Maro."
"Pleased to meet you." Gabrielle said.
"The honor is mine." The Lieutenant replied, bowing slightly at the waist.
"Lieutenant, why don't you show Gabrielle where you will be working, while Xena and I discuss the placement of some of our defenses." The General said.
"Yes sir." The Lieutenant replied. "Right this way Gabrielle." He said leading her in the direction of a short table upon which sat several vials of ink and numerous rolls of blank parchment.
Once they were out of earshot of Xena and Marmax, Gabrielle turned to Maro, a quizzical look on her face.
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Lieutenant?"
"Not if you agree to call me Maro, only my commanders call me Lieutenant." Maro replied, a genuine smile lighting his face. Gabrielle returned the smile, and paused to consider how to phrase her question.
"You don't seem the 'Army' type, if you don't mind me saying so. What are you doing here, on the General's staff?"
"Ah, long story there. Let's just say I'm fulfilling a long family tradition of military service." Maro said, the smile never leaving his face. "Maybe I can tell you the whole story sometime."
"Maybe." Gabrielle replied sincerely, tearing her attention away from the young Lieutenant to concentrate on the parchments before her.
Xena and Marmax exited the tent and stepped out into the cool morning air, humid and still, the morning mists swirling around their legs like clinging tentacles of the night. Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm herself and focus on what was soon to come. The warrioress turned to look at Marmax. The General was tensed but not overly so, like a coiled spring, he was ready to strike at the Horde army that was now approaching. The General was unused to a defensive battle, preferring to take the offensive, but this time, that was not to be.
"You've done all you can, Marmax. It's time to trust in your men. They are up to this. And so are you." Xena said.
The General turned to face the warrior woman. "I hope you're right, Xena. If you're not, there's going to be a lot of dead heroes here in a few hours."
Xena nodded her head solemnly. For our sakes, I'd better be right. "Come on, let's make our rounds one more time, they'll be here soon."
Marmax and Xena walked in relative silence, making only cursory comments on the placement of this company or that one, whether or not to place archers to the left or the right of the center lines. The men on the front lines followed them with their eyes as they passed. Most of them had seen Marmax lead men into battle, and those that hadn't had heard the stories of his leadership abilities. And they had all heard of Xena. When she had entered the camp the day before, it was as if someone had lit a candle in a darkened room. Many now felt that not only did they have a chance at surviving the coming storm, but that they might actually win the day.
Xena let her eyes wander over the row after row of pikemen and lancers, archers and swordsman. She herself had never been a part of a single army this large, and was frankly impressed with the sheer numbers that Marmax had been able to rally to their cause. But 30,000 Horde warriors? No word from anywhere had ever spoken of so many at once, and that complicated matters greatly. Why did they gather so many? Xena thought. They've never brought so many onto the battlefield at once before. What's different this time?
She knew how difficult it was to defeat smaller numbers of Horde soldiers, how to do so against such a large force? Well, they had a few surprises planned for them when they arrived. That and one completely crazy idea, just in case it all went poorly for them, and the Horde threatened to overwhelm them. Xena never went into a battle without leaving herself a backdoor, at least that way some of them may survive. But she fervently hoped it would not come to that.
Less than an hour later, Xena and Marmax found themselves back at the command tent. The first faint glow of the sunrise, just beginning to stretch it's fingers over the army encamped between the ridgelines, shed light on the narrow plain stretched before them as it began to dispel the fog and mists. Now able to see more clearly, the scouts had reported that the Horde army was again on the move and would be engaged with the allied advance lines within the hour.
Gabrielle had read the dispatch and had immediately sought out Xena and the General. She found them talking quietly just outside the tent.
"This just came in." The young woman said tentatively as she handed the parchment to Marmax.
The General read it quickly, feeling almost a sense of relief. It was finally beginning, and hopefully it would soon be over. One way or the other.
"They'll be here within the hour." Marmax said quietly. Turning to Gabrielle, "Send a message to all commanders informing them to ready their men. The Horde will be here by the time the sun has fully risen. I'll be on the western ridge with the lookouts if you need me."
Gabrielle nodded once, knowing the implications of the message she had delivered and the ones she was about to deliver.
"I'll join you shortly." Xena said as Marmax turned to leave. She then steeled herself to face her friend. She had to put on a brave front for Gabrielle, if only to placate the bard's fears, if she could. Xena turned to look into the pale green eyes that now held hers with the power of her faith. And her fear.
Gabrielle could feel the growing tightness in her chest and fiercely clamped down on her emotions. Fear and the bard were no strangers, but this time it was more acute, more intense. She had seen what a few thousand Horde warriors could do and the thought of facing tens of thousands terrified her. There was so much she wanted to say to Xena before she left for the front lines, and yet so much she was still unsure of. In the end, she said nothing at all. She didn't need to.
Xena could see the conflict warring within Gabrielle, and knew what the young woman must be feeling. Words had never served Xena well, actions did. The warrioress reached out, took Gabrielle by the shoulders and pulled her into a hug, wrapping her long, sinewy arms around the smaller woman. Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled in to the warm embrace, reveling in the warmth and protection she felt in Xena's arms. They remained that way for several moments, heedless to those who may be watching them. Gabrielle then pulled away slightly to look into Xena's eyes, leaving her arms around the warrior's waist.
"Stay safe." The bard said simply. "And come back to me."
"I will, Gabrielle. I promise." Xena replied, stepping back and breaking contact with the bard.
The cool morning air now sent a chill through Gabrielle, and she shivered slightly now that she was no longer within that warm embrace. Wrapping her arms about herself, the young Amazon Queen watched as Xena turned and strode off toward the waiting army. Artemis, protect her. Gabrielle prayed silently before turning to reenter the tent.