Xena carried Gabrielle, until Marmax had insisted that she place her on one of the carts pulled by tired horses toward the waiting city of Corinth. They had not stopped since their retreat from the cut, and Xena had only been able to make a cursory examination of Gabrielle's injuries. She had taken quite a blow to the head, and Xena had dressed the wound as best she could along the road south, the bleeding had seemed to slow and finally stop, but Gabrielle had yet to display any sign of waking.
Xena had not left her side during their journey, and now walked beside the cart carrying Gabrielle and two other wounded men. Xena's eyes were cold and hard. She had severely underestimated the Horde, and it had nearly cost Gabrielle her life. She would not make the same mistake again.
It was a broken and dispirited army that journeyed south toward Corinth, shamed by their defeat and shocked by the number of dead and wounded. They had been forced to leave the dead behind, their bodies almost certainly defiled by the Horde victors. For the injured, there was little time to tend to wounds or lend comfort, their moans and cries hanging unbearably in the stillness of midday. For those who now marched toward the waiting city, there was only dread at what they knew was to come. The Horde would pursue them until they were forced to face them on the field of battle again, they could feel it. As the hot sun beat down on them with an unrelenting intensity, their thoughts turned dark with rage and bitterness. Wait until we get to Corinth. They thought to themselves. We'll show those savages! They've slaughtered our brothers and our friends for too long! Corinth is our haven, there we can make a stand and finally destroy them, once and for all!
Marmax led the battered and bloody army, his own thoughts black and dark. He wanted nothing more than to end this, and drive the Horde from the Greek countryside. Shortly after clearing the cut, he had dispatched two of his more skilled officers to Thrace and Macedonia. The General now realized they had no hope of defeating the Horde without help, he only prayed that the Thracians and Macedonians would heed his urgent warnings and send as many men as they could spare. They would know soon if it would be enough.
Marmax's gaze shifted to Xena. The warrioress walked silently beside him, leading her warhorse, her countenance enigmatic, her thoughts locked carefully away from him. The General watched as Xena's gaze would shift periodically to the still form of the bard, linger there for a moment, and then shift back again. Marmax's heart ached to see Gabrielle this way once again, but he knew there was little he could do for her until they reached Corinth.
Marmax ordered that a rearguard follow behind the army to keep track of the Horde's progress. It wouldn't take them long to free themselves from the trap the allies had laid, but the Horde army would have to backtrack nearly a full day before finding a clear path around the defile. As they finally drew within sight of the walled city, the first reports that the Horde had begun the arduous task of pulling back from the gorge were reaching the General.
The sigh of relief that escaped the throats of the allied soldiers was audible as they passed within the city, and the temporary safety its walls provided. Marmax immediately began setting up a command post, assessing his position, and his command staff. He needed to know how many of his officers had been killed or wounded and promote others to take their places as quickly as possible, the men needed strong leadership, now more than ever.
After making sure that Gabrielle was comfortable and safe, Xena set about organizing a makeshift hospital within the covered marketplace, the stalls and awnings giving the wounded some relief from the oppressive heat. Once she had the army healers working with the Corinthian healers tending to the wounded and looking after the details of getting the hospital up and running, Xena went to Gabrielle.
She found the young bard laying on a bed of soft furs beneath a small awning asleep, unconscious still, her breathing shallow. Xena removed the bandage from around Gabrielle's head, wincing at the sight of the wound but was gratified to see that it was not deep. She gently and thoroughly cleaned the wound and redressed it, careful not to jostle Gabrielle unnecessarily. Xena kept herself firmly detached from her emotions while she tended to her friend, otherwise she feared that she would be unable to do what she must to help her. The fear that she had felt at seeing Gabrielle unconscious on the floor of the command tent had been almost more than she could bear.
The late afternoon sun slipped silently toward dusk, its shadow lengthening over Corinth and the army within. Xena sat alone at Gabrielle's bedside, staring down at her as she slept. Until she woke it would be difficult to ascertain the extent of her injuries. Gabrielle had not stirred once since she was struck down, and Xena was afraid for her.
Impulsively, Xena leaned forward, reached down and took Gabrielle's limp hand in her own. She sat that way for a moment, then leaned back wearily, still grasping the young woman's hand.
"Gabrielle," she whispered, almost to herself. "You promised we'd walk out of there together. Don't think I'll let you forget you broke that promise." Xena paused, her emotions thick in her throat. "Just come back to me, and maybe I'll forget all about it, ok?"
The minutes slipped past and the night began to creep over the city, and still Xena kept her vigil. It was several hours later when Xena sensed a presence behind her.
"Marmax." Xena said, not turning to confirm the newcomer's identity.
"How is she?" The General asked quietly.
Xena turned at his question, the look on her face speaking volumes. She just didn't know. And the not knowing was tearing her apart. Marmax reached out and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"You and I have both seen her beat death before. She'll be fine. She's a strong young woman." Marmax said confidently. "Come, one of my healers will watch over her. You need to eat."
"No." Came the sharp reply. "I'm not leaving her."
"Xena, please. You haven't eaten all day, you need to keep your strength up. For her sake. You know she would want you to take care of yourself."
Xena opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again. In her mind she could hear Gabrielle berating her to go, get some rest, eat something. The warrioress sighed in defeat.
"I want to be notified the minute there's a change."
"Of course." Marmax replied as he gestured to the healer who, up until now had been waiting in the shadows. "You are not to leave her for any reason. Understood?" He ordered.
"Understood sir." The healer replied as he moved to seat himself at Gabrielle's side.
Xena stood reluctantly, leaned over and smoothed back a lock of red blonde hair, and kissed Gabrielle lightly on the forehead. As she pulled back to look into the peaceful face before her, Xena whispered to her, "Rest well, my friend. I'll be back soon." Lingering for a moment longer, Xena then allowed Marmax to lead her to the officer's mess area and a hot meal.
Xena barely picked at her plate, her mind constantly drifting back to Gabrielle. Once again her pride had cost the bard dearly. She felt her heart lurch within her chest as she reflected back on the sight of Gabrielle lying helpless on the floor of the tent, the Horde warrior bent over her. The guilt crashed over her like a tidal wave, threatening to overwhelm her in its intensity. Xena suddenly felt like a trapped animal, an overriding need to get up, to do something, anything driving her to her feet.
Marmax saw the warrioress push back her chair and surge to her feet and reached out to lay his hand on her forearm.
"What's wrong? Where are you going?" He asked, a concerned look on his face.
"I can't just sit here, Marmax. I have to do something. I'm going to check the wall defenses, make sure everyone's in position."
"Xena, the reports we've received have indicated that the Horde is at least two days march from here. That rock slide completely cut them off." Marmax said. "Please, try to relax."
"I can't!" Was the heated reply. Xena took a deep breath and attempted to calm herself. "If you need me I'll be on the wall or at the hospital." Xena said tersely, as she strode from the mess hall and out into the cool night air.
Xena was nearly to the main outer walls when a soldier calling her name brought her up short. She turned to see a young Athenian warrior jogging toward her. He stopped a few paces from her and saluted.
"Yes," Xena said. "What is it?"
"General Marmax said that I might find you here. It's the Metoan healer. He's asking that you be brought to the healing place immediately."
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked hesitantly, fear registering in her eyes and tightening her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe.
"That's all the message said, just that they want you there right away. I'm sorry."
Xena looked toward the marketplace and broke into a dead run, her panic driving her. No! No, this isn't happening! Her mind cried out.
The warrioress tore through the stalls, heedless of those around her. She caught sight of the Metoan healer standing just outside the small kiosk where she had left Gabrielle. Xena charged toward the man, grabbing him by the front of his tunic and nearly lifting him bodily off the ground.
"Gabrielle…" was all she could manage to croak out.
The healer fought to maintain some control of himself and tried to speak through his fright.
"She's ok. Really." He managed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to alarm you."
His words slowly registered in Xena's mind and she eased her grip on the healer. "Then why…" She asked slowly, confusion tearing through her.
"She's awake." He replied simply. "And she's asking for you."
Xena's eyes widened as relief flooded through her, washing away her fear and panic, leaving her shaking. Xena released the healer and turned to enter the kiosk.
Gabrielle lay on her bed, her body relaxed, her breathing deep and even. Xena moved to kneel next to her, reaching to take the young woman's hand in her own. Gabrielle stirred slightly at the contact, opening her eyes sleepily. Her eyes drifted for a moment, confusion evident on her face. Then the bard's eyes came to rest on Xena and she smiled slightly.
"Xena…" Gabrielle said quietly, her voice no more than a whisper.
"Shh. Don't try to talk." Xena replied smiling. "You've got quite a bump on the head." She said, reaching up to examine the bandages more closely, pleased to see that the wound had long since stopped bleeding. "Are you thirsty?"
Gabrielle nodded slightly and Xena reached for a waterskin lying on a nearby table. She reached out and lifted Gabrielle up by the shoulders, supporting her with her arm and held the skin to the bard's lips. After she had taken a couple of sips, Gabrielle settled back into Xena's embrace, relaxing in the feeling of safety and comfort she felt in the warrioress' arms. With her free hand, Xena capped the waterskin and set it aside, shifting herself on the small pallet to gather Gabrielle into her arms as if she were a small child.
Normally Gabrielle would have been indignant at being treated this way, but now, through the haze of pain and exhaustion, the feeling of Xena's arms around her brought a sense of peace. She rested her head in the crook of Xena's arm, suddenly weary from the exertion of sitting up. Gabrielle opened her eyes a crack to look into the deep blue ones above her.
"Are you ok?" The bard asked softly. "You weren't hurt were you?"
"No Gabrielle, I'm fine, really." Xena replied, rocking her gently in her arms. "Now please, go back to sleep. You need your rest."
Gabrielle nodded once and then sank even further into Xena's arms, allowing the rocking motion to lull her. Xena could feel her body begin to relax, but then the young Amazon tensed suddenly, her eyes flying open.
"Maro…" She breathed. "He was hurt…I…I couldn't stop them…"
"Shh, shh." Xena said. "He was hurt, but he's alive. I promise, if you go to sleep, I'll go and check on him, ok?"
Her mind put at ease, Gabrielle once again eased into the warrioress' arms, finally allowing the gentle rocking motion to soothe her into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Xena could feel Gabrielle's breathing deepen, becoming even, her body relaxing into the quiet embrace of sleep. She sat there, on the edge of Gabrielle's pallet, slowly rocking her for several minutes, unwilling to let go of the bard just yet. She had nearly lost Gabrielle yet again, and was unable to pull herself away from her side.
Xena's body then too began to relax, as the tension, fear, and grief left her and was replaced with a feeling of calm. Gabrielle would recover, and that was the most important thing right now. Everything else around her was secondary.
Once she was certain that Gabrielle was resting comfortably, Xena gently laid her back and eased off the side of the pallet to kneel at her side. Gabrielle began to awaken at the movement, but settled once again when Xena laid a comforting hand on her arm, stroking it lightly. The warrioress gazed for a long moment at the serene face before her, her course set, her decision final.
"Never again, Gabrielle." Xena whispered. "Never again will I risk your life the way I did today. And this time I won't let you talk me out of it." Xena rose and walked the few steps to the entrance of the kiosk, and after one last backward glance, she moved off into the night.
Xena left the marketplace and went in search of Marmax. She found him several minutes later in his command post going over the reports from his remaining officers and commanders. He looked up as she entered the room, his face drawn, worry lining his eyes.
"How is Gabrielle?" He asked expectantly.
"She's awake. She'll be fine, she just needs some rest. But if I know Gabrielle, she'll be up and out of that bed by morning." Xena said, a slight smile creasing the corners of her eyes. "How did we fare?"
Marmax allowed his eyes to drop slightly at the question. "Not good." He said, never looking up. "Out of my three division commanders, one was killed and one was wounded. Of those divisions, four brigade commanders were killed and another six were wounded. And as for the rest, well…" Marmax trailed off. "I just don't know if I have the men to promote to take their places."
Xena walked around the small table at which Marmax sat to look at the reports over his shoulder. From what she could see, Marmax had the necessary personnel, he just needed to reorganize it.
"You've got the men, you just need to reassign them. Here…" Xena said. For the next several minutes, she and the General moved officers from one unit to another, covering for the losses. When they had finished, Marmax felt certain that they could make do with the men they had placed.
"Well, that covers everything but this last division. I still don't have someone I can promote to lead them." Marmax said.
Xena could see the question that was coming and moved to head it off.
"No, Marmax." Xena said, shaking her head. "I told you before, I'll advise you and I'll fight at your side, but I won't lead these men. That's not who I am anymore."
"Xena, please, I need you."
"Marmax, I won't say it again. No." Xena said with conviction. "Isn't there some way you can reassign those units to other divisions?"
"Yes, I suppose I could, but that would place Athenians, Metoans, Corinthians, and Thessilians all in the same units. It could cause some tension between the men."
"Yeah well, there's no time for that. These men understand that, I think. They should after what happened today." Xena said. "Marmax, we don't have enough men here to turn back the army that's headed this way, you know that."
"I know. I dispatched messengers to the Thracians and the Macedonians as soon as we cleared the gorge, but I'm not sure if even they will be enough."
"There are others who could be persuaded to help us, if we send the right envoy." Xena commented.
"Who?" Marmax asked.
"Gabrielle is Queen of the Amazons, if she went to them and presented our present situation to the council, I'm sure she could convince them to join us." Xena said confidently. "And we have certain ties to the Centaurs. Perhaps we could convince them to join us as well."
"Queen huh?" Marmax said, laughing quietly to himself. "Well she can be very persuasive, when she wants to be. Not to mention it would get her away from the battlefield, eh Xena?"
The warrioress was a little taken aback at being read so easily, but quickly nodded her assent. "I'll send a message to the Amazons that they are to keep her there, if they can. She needs time to recover and I don't want to expose her to any further danger here."
"I agree." Marmax replied. "All right, I'll prepare an escort for her, if they head north for half a day before turning east toward the Amazon lands, they should be able to avoid the Horde army. Xena, with the Thracians, Macedonians, Amazons, and Centaurs fighting with us, we just might have a chance."
"Maybe. Now if we can just get them here in time." Xena said thoughtfully.
Marmax nodded silently, turning to look at the warrioress. "Xena, you look exhausted. Why don't you try to get some sleep."
Xena smiled a bit at the suggestion. "Only if you get some rest too."
The General started to protest, but then thought better of it. "Ok, ok. I'm going." He said as he climbed wearily to his feet. "I'll see you in the morning, Xena."
"Night Marmax." Xena said as she turned to leave the room. The warrioress found herself once again in the arms of the cool night. She paused for a moment, taking a few deep breaths of the humid air. It had been one of the most difficult days of her life, the emotional hills and valleys leaving her feeling spent. Remembering her promise to Gabrielle, Xena set off in the direction of the marketplace once again to check on Lieutenant Maro.