Marmax stood atop the ridge, his eyes peering intently through the remainder of the mists, searching for any sign of the Horde. He was dimly aware of Xena's presence beside him, but did not dare tear his eyes away. Then, there it was, a glint of reflected sunlight off a Horde battle-axe.
"Steady men!" Marmax called out. "Have courage. They're almost within range." All eyes turned toward the General. Marmax gripped the pommel of his sword tightly, fighting to calm his wildly beating heart. He felt Xena's reassuring hand on his shoulder, then abruptly the cries began, distant and terrifying, rolling out from within the retreating mists.
The cries grew louder as the Horde army drew ever closer, their voices deep and savage, they rose steadily into a single unending howl that broke over the soldiers of the allied army like a wave. The sound seemed to echo between the ridgelines, coming from everywhere at once.
"Here they come." Xena breathed.
"Archers!" Came the command, and arrows were notched into bowstrings, pikes and lances held at the ready. Suddenly there was silence and the dawn hung still once more. The army tensed in anticipation. In the next instant the cries rose anew, a feral roar of exultation as the Horde came crashing toward the front lines. In that same instant, Xena caught movement off to her left and whirled to snatch a Horde axe from mid air as it sliced it's way toward a soldier's unprotected back.
The warrioress' eyes widened in dismay as she instantly realized what was happening.
"Marmax! They're flanking us! Get the lines turned!" Xena called out over the din, as she turned to face the onslaught. Marmax caught the nearest soldier by the arm and sent him to pass the word to all his commanders on the ridges to swivel their lines away from the cut where the main body lay in wait, and instead turn to face the attack coming from the east and the west. He then scribbled a short message to Lieutenant Maro, ordering that the Metoan infantry being held in reserve be immediately dispatched to reinforce both the eastern and western ridges.
How? Marmax thought to himself. They have never attacked the flanks before! Never! Marmax shook his head. Enough time to worry about the how and why later, fight now!
Through the cover of the trees they came. Wave after wave of Horde warriors surging through the early morning mists, ripping and tearing at one another in their eagerness to attack. The Athenian long bows bent, and a rush of arrows blackened the sky as they ripped through the foremost of the warriors. The archers fired again and again, their bows humming, and still the Horde came, screaming their rage and frustration.
The two forces were less than 100 feet apart when Marmax ordered the archers to fall back and the lancers to advance slightly, their weapons braced against the hard earth in readiness. The Horde advanced steadily, seemingly unconcerned with the allied defenses. The first wave of the attack broke against the wall of lances, as the Horde let their battle-axes fly. The weapons tore through the allied lines, cutting apart the men in the forefront of the line. Xena watched from her position as the line wavered, but held.
Horde warriors were now impaled upon the pikes and lances of the allied line, and the allies moved forward to throw them off onto their own rushing up from behind, only to be shocked to see the sheer numbers yet advancing on them. The Horde seemed to pause for a moment, then they gathered themselves for another rush, this time several small groups breaking through the allied defenses, only to be cut down by the swordsmen held in reserve as they rushed forward to plug the gaps opening up in the forward lines.
Now the allies were dying in larger numbers, buried under the sheer volume of their attackers, dragged from behind their lances and pikes to be torn apart by Horde weapons. The Athenian long bows continued to rain death down upon the enemy, cutting them down in steady numbers, but where one fell, two more appeared to take his place. The ridge defenses were in danger of collapsing under the stress of the constant attack. Then suddenly, the Metoan reinforcements were there, but it was not enough.
Xena could see the lines wavering dangerously as she fought off yet another Horde assault on her position. Her sword and chakram dealing out their share of punishment on those unlucky enough to face the Warrior Princess, but Xena knew it was only a matter of time before they were overrun. Killing her attacker with one clean strike from her sword, Xena disengaged from the fight, searching for the General. Finding him safely tucked behind a wall of his own Metoan infantrymen, Xena approached the warrior.
"Marmax!" Xena yelled. "Order your men to begin falling back! We can't hold here! We must pull back to the center lines! It's our only chance!"
Marmax looked around him briefly, and then gave the order to fall back. The allies disengaged hurriedly, retreating as quickly as possible down the ridge toward the center of the lines. Marmax and Xena stood with the remainder of the Athenian bowmen as they attempted to hold back the Horde assault long enough for the rest of the force to escape. Their blades flashing and bows loosing wave after wave of arrows into the advancing throng, they fought until they could no longer hold their position, and then fell back along the same route taken by the rest of the men.
Upon reaching the bottom of the cut, Marmax found that the division he had placed in the center of the line was now fully engaged with an even larger force of Horde warriors. Bringing his lancers and pikemen on line from the east and the west, they formed a half moon formation and attempted to hold there.
The Horde warriors from the east and west force now joined with those engaged in the center and raced to attack. Hundreds died in the rush, killed by sword, lance and arrow, or were simply trampled beneath the feet of their brethren. Yet still they came, surging forth from the mists into the narrow cut, throwing themselves against the lines of allied defenders. They threw them back- once, twice, three times as the cut filled with the bodies of the dead, and the bleeding bodies of the wounded crying out in pain and furor.
Marmax watched all of this from behind the main lines, knowing that there were simply too many Horde warriors and not enough allies. They continued to pour into the gorge, and not even the gallantry and courage of the fighters would stop them now. The defensive positions, so carefully chosen, the studious planning, all useless against this savagery.
Marmax turned to look at Xena, but she did not see him, the whole of her concentration fixed on the battle before her. The entire allied army was in danger of collapsing, and there seemed little they could do about it. Suddenly from off to their left, a group of Horde warriors managed to break through the allied line and now were making their way toward the center of the encampment. Xena's heart clenched with fear when she realized what lay within their path of destruction. GABRIELLE! Her mind cried out in panic, as her chest constricted so that she didn't think she could breathe.
"Marmax! The command tent! They're headed toward the command tent!" Xena cried, her fear driving her as she ran head long toward the tent where she knew Gabrielle and Lieutenant Maro to be. Xena found herself running toward the tent, panic driving all from her mind except getting there in time, before the Horde.
Marmax turned at the warrioress' cry, and looked on with horror as the Horde patrol seemed to cut a clear swath through the allied army toward it's center. He immediately ordered half of his personal guard to follow Xena to the command tent. These were the best of the best of his Metoan infantrymen, if any of his men could stop the small company of Horde warriors, it was them. Fighting the urge to lead them himself, Marmax forced his attention back to the battle, ordering the last of his infantrymen still held in reserve to fill the gap made by the advancing Horde warriors.
Xena stretched her already incredibly long stride to new lengths as she raced to reach Gabrielle before the Horde did. Her battle cry loosed from her throat, Xena reached the rear of the Horde column as they were nearing the tent. The Warrior Princess, her sword already dripping with Horde blood, cut her way through the two men nearest her before they had even realized they were being pursued, leaving them dead in her wake as she continued after the rest.
Two other of the Horde soldiers, hearing their comrades cry out as Xena cut them down, turned to face the warrioress. Xena brought up her sword in a vicious arc, disarming one of them easily, and plunging her sword to the hilt in his unprotected chest. Unable to retrieve her weapon from the body of the warrior, Xena released it as she turned to face the second warrior unarmed. She sidestepped his blows easily, delivering a devastating kick to the warriors' head. His neck snapped back with a sickening crack and he fell lifelessly to the ground.
Xena bent to retrieve her weapon from the chest of the Horde soldier and suddenly became aware of several Metoan infantrymen at her side.
"Let's go." She said dangerously, her voice low. Leading the way to the command tent, Xena could see that the Horde warriors had already breached their defenses and were making their way inside. The wave of terror that broke over her nearly drove the warrioress to her knees as she heard Gabrielle's scream pierce the thick humid air.
Gabrielle and Maro had spent their time awaiting the attack chatting amiably, neither wanting to admit to any fear, but knowing it lurked within them.
"I hear you're a bard." Maro commented, smiling.
"Yeah, I tell stories now and then. Sometimes when we need money, but mostly just because I like telling them." Gabrielle replied, returning his smile.
"I'd like to hear one of your stories sometime. Perhaps under more relaxed circumstances?" Maro asked quietly.
"When this is all over, Maro, I promise to tell you all the stories you want to hear." Gabrielle said, her smile now touching her eyes. "So tell me, how did you…" Gabrielle began, only to be cut off by the first cries of the Horde as they began their attack. The bard froze in fear at the sound, her heart suddenly in her throat.
"Here we go." Maro said softly, his eyes belying the fear in his heart.
It was shortly thereafter that the dispatches had begun to arrive and both Maro and Gabrielle had plenty to take their minds of their terror. It was barely an hour later, when an out of breath Metoan infantryman burst into the tent, clutching the precious dispatch in his hand. He pulled himself upright, saluted Lieutenant Maro and handed him the message.
Maro immediately recognized General Marmax's seal as he unrolled the scroll and read it quickly. Looking up from the parchment he instructed the soldier to report back to his unit, and then turned to face Gabrielle.
The young woman could see the fear and worry in Maro's expression. "What is it? What's happened?" She said, her own panic growing once again, leaving a now familiar ache in her chest.
"The flanks have been attacked, the General has ordered that the reserve from the center lines be moved to reinforce them."
"Xena?" Gabrielle breathed, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. It doesn't say." Maro returned. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle nodded once in reply before turning her attention back to the parchment before her.
"What do I say?" She asked, dipping her quill in the ink, poised to write. They sat for several minutes, the only sound within the tent was the furious scribing of the dispatches, ordering the Metoans to the ridges. The howling of the Horde warriors outside grew in volume and intensity, until it seemed that they must be just on the other side of the tent flap. As they each finished the last of the orders for the Metoan commanders, Maro stood and pulled aside the tent flap, calling for runners. Two men appeared, dressed in tunics and carrying only shortswords so as not to be hampered by clumsy armor and weapons when delivering their messages. Maro sent them on their way, as he and Gabrielle continued to read the incoming reports and sending out orders to the commanders in the field.
The battle had raged on either side of the lines, and Gabrielle and Maro began receiving reports that things were not going well atop the ridge emplacements, the last scroll reporting that the flanks had collapsed and the men had fallen back to the center of the lines.
Gabrielle's brow had creased with worry, but she knew there was little she could do except wait and hope. The sounds of battle now appeared to be drawing closer, and Gabrielle cocked her head to listen more closely.
"Gabrielle? What's wrong?" Maro asked, concerned.
"Shh. Don't you hear it? Something's headed this way." Gabrielle said quietly, still listening intently. The screams of the Horde drew ever nearer, until they could be heard within a few yards of the tent.
"Gabrielle, get behind me." Maro said as he unsheathed his sword, waiting for the inevitable. Then he heard it, the clash of metal against metal just outside the walls of the tent as the Horde warriors engaged the small troop of men left behind to protect the command staff.
Maro and Gabrielle were alone in the tent, having dispatched all of the runners to various parts of the battlefield. Now it was the young Lieutenant who stood between them and the Horde warrior standing before them, his body and weapon covered in blood, both his and that of his enemies. Gabrielle had surreptitiously reached for her Amazon staff and now held it across her body, ready to defend herself, if necessary.
The Horde warrior bared his teeth in a hideous snarl and howled, his cry filling the small tent and ringing in their ears. He then lunged at Maro, swinging his battle-axe with abandon, almost out of control in his desire to destroy the Greek warrior before him.
Maro parried the blow cleanly, attempting to keep himself between the Horde warrior and Gabrielle. Gabrielle watched as Maro attempted to hold off the warrior, and caught a glimpse of daylight as the tent flap opened to reveal two more Horde warriors. Gabrielle moved into a defensive position, her knees bent, her body tensed, ready to strike.
Maro continued his battle with the Horde warrior as Gabrielle moved to lunge at the two newcomers. As she moved into the light cast by the now half open tent flap, the eyes of one of the warriors widened in surprise and he hesitated momentarily, giving the bard an opportunity to land a blow to his knees that effectively took him down to the ground clutching at his legs and moaning.
Gabrielle left her attention with the wounded Horde warrior a split second too long, and the second soldier was able to deliver a powerful blow to her staff with his axe that took the bard to her knees, suddenly defenseless. Maro saw Gabrielle go down and immediately turned his body toward her attacker, ignoring his own opponent. He blocked the blow aimed at her head, but not before his own attacker landed a vicious swipe to his unprotected side, taking the young officer down, blood pouring from the deep laceration.
Gabrielle was stunned she was still alive, and quickly recovered her weapon in time to place herself between Maro and the two Horde warriors who were still on their feet. The warrior she had taken down was now struggling to stand, growling something unintelligible to his companions. Gabrielle could see the same wide-eyed look in their eyes as they turned to look at her. The looks sent chills up and down her spine. One of the warriors began moving toward the bard menacingly, and she brought up her staff in a devastating arc, her movements so quick it caught the man by surprise, catching him solidly on the shoulder and sending him flying.
The first warrior faced her again, this time no longer distracted. He limped toward her, twirling his blade in front of his body, faster and faster, the blade becoming a blur, until Gabrielle couldn't follow it's movements. It was then that the warrior attacked, swinging his weapon down in a slash that finally disarmed the bard, her staff clattering to the ground.
The Horde warrior would have recognized the Chosen One anywhere. Many who were there that day had described her until he could picture her in his mind's eye. Now she stood before him, and he was determined to be the one to deliver her to Telmark and the priests of Arimon. His would be the honor. But as the prophecy had foretold, she did not come willingly, and he considered exactly how to capture the One without harming her. In the end, it was Gabrielle who made the decision for him.
In a surge of foolhardiness born of fear and adrenaline, Gabrielle rushed the warrior, throwing herself into the man's midsection, hoping to knock him off balance and escape out the tent flap. Instead the warrior reacted out of instinct and self preservation, bringing the flat of his weapon around to contact with the bard's head and shoulder, causing her to cry out in pain before she crumpled to the floor in a heap.
The warrior was horrified that he had possibly killed the Chosen One and knelt on the ground next to her prone body. He was in this position, poised over Gabrielle, a bloody battle-axe in his hand, when Xena burst through the flap, her sword drawn and ready, death in her ice blue eyes.
The Warrior Princess had battled her way to the command tent, and now found herself greeted by a sight that froze her heart in her chest. The Horde warrior was crouched over Gabrielle's body in a position she had seen her men in those many years ago as the Horde had moved in to skin them alive. Xena could feel the beginnings of a darkness creep into the corners of her mind as she took all of it in, she could feel her vision growing dim as she allowed the darkness to claim her, drawing strength from it.
It was then that she could feel the rage build.
"GABRIELLE!" The cry tore from her throat in grief and furor. "Nooo!"
Xena's sword came up in a terrible stroke that threatened to separate the warrior's head from his shoulders. He blocked it at the last possible second, his comrade moving to get behind the warrioress. Xena caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, and brought her sword around to block the strike aimed at the back of her head. Throwing him back, Xena sidestepped to keep both warriors in sight. Twirling her sword in front of her body, Xena moved to strike at them, her sword weaving between the two men, taking them both on at once. The warrioress no longer felt anything, not fear, not pain, not grief. Devoid of everything, she fought almost mechanically, letting her instincts take over.
The warrior Gabrielle had hobbled was now moving toward the open tent flap, determined to escape back to Telmark to tell him what had befallen the Chosen One. Calling out to his companion, the limping warrior retreated out the flap as the second warrior blocked Xena's path, allowing him to escape.
Xena had positioned herself between the Horde warriors and Gabrielle, unfortunately allowing one of them a perfect escape route, but the other was not so lucky. She watched as the warrior limped out of the tent, and then concentrated fully on the Horde soldier in front of her. The darkness that threatened to overwhelm her, now guided her sword as she lashed out at the soldier with a flurry of blows that forced the man steadily back until he had no choice but to attempt an assault of his own. His attempts at an attack met a stone wall of resistance from Xena. Finally, he left himself open for a strike and Xena took advantage of his mistake, impaling him on the end of her sword. He dropped his own weapon, his hands closing reflexively around the blade sticking out of his chest.
Xena planted her foot squarely in the warrior's chest, pushing him off and onto the floor. He was dead before he hit the ground. Xena stood over him, her sword quivering in her hand, her breathing ragged as she fought to quell the darkness that had threatened to claim her once again. Her vision began to clear as she turned to kneel next to Gabrielle, her nerveless fingers frantically searching for a pulse, a breath, anything that would give her hope that Gabrielle was still alive.
The side of the bard's head was covered in blood, but the wound seemed superficial. Xena gently rolled Gabrielle onto her back and lifted the bard to cradle her in her arms.
"Gabrielle? Come on Gabrielle, don't do this to me." Xena whispered as she ran her hands along the young woman's neck, searching for any sign of life. Then, there it was, a faint beat, then another. Xena breathed an audible sigh of relief as the soldiers from the Metoan guard burst through the door.
Xena's head jerked up as they entered. "See to the Lieutenant." She ordered. "We've got to get out of here. They'll be coming in force any minute." Xena gathered Gabrielle up into her arms and exited the tent. She turned toward the front lines and what she saw horrified her. The Horde had broken through the western flank and was now closing in on the center of their lines. Marmax had ordered a full retreat and was preparing to close the 'back door' Xena had in readiness. Upon seeing the Warrior Princess carrying the still body of the bard in her arms, Marmax came toward them, fear and concern registering in his eyes.
Xena saw the look and attempted to calm his fears. "She's alive. But we need to get her out of here. Is everything ready?"
"Yes. The archers know what to do. The units are already in full retreat. Let's go." Marmax said as he led them away from the front lines.
At first all was chaos as the men on the front lines pulled back from their emplacements and retreated along the predetermined path, following the officers in the headlong flight out of the cut to freedom. The Horde surged forward, seeing the allied lines crumble, shrieking with glee. Back surged the lancers and pikemen, clogging the mouth of the cut in their frantic need to escape the slaughter, escape the Horde. As the last of the rear guard disengaged and fled toward the mouth of the narrow canyon, the Athenian archers turned, set themselves, and fired one massive volley into the rocks to the east and west above the defile.
The arrows found their mark, and the rock face began to shudder and quake, then slid down the side of the ridge and onto the Horde warriors streaming through the cut, pursuing the fleeing allied army. For a moment, the allies turned back and watched as, for just an instant, the path through the narrow canyon lay open and the Horde began to flow through like an unstoppable wave, choking the passage as they struggled to gain the canyon beyond. Howling in rage they charged after the fleeing army, but they were too late. The allies had already gained the other side and had scrambled through.
The ridge face continued its slow slide down on top of the Horde army and the allies could hear the cries of the warriors as they were buried under tons of rock and debris. The howling of the Horde warriors, now trapped behind the wall of rock several feet high, greeted the ears of the fleeing army as they continued their flight out of the canyon and onto the plain to the south.