It had taken nearly five hours, but Telmark had finally been able to extricate his army from the trap laid by the Greeks as they had fled the narrow defile before the onslaught of his superior forces. They had won the day, but had allowed the Greek army to escape, and that he could not permit. They had traveled until it was too dark to see, and then had made camp. Telmark had ordered that only the barest of essentials be broken out of the stores, he wanted little to repack in the morning so that they might resume their march on Corinth as soon as possible.
They had already lost precious time backtracking out of the small canyon and onto open ground. Now they were making their way slowly back the way they came. His scouts had reported that it would be nearly a full day's march until they reached a point where he would be able to turn the army back to the north and resume his pursuit of the Greeks.
The news that the Chosen One had been sighted within the Greek camp had set the army buzzing with excitement. Telmark had waited until they had made camp, and then had sent for the man who had reported seeing her. Then he had sent for Pindego. It was Pindego who had first come in contact with the Chosen One back at the Athenian outpost, and only he who could confirm her presence here. Telmark looked up as the two warriors entered his quarters and came to stand before him.
"Oh Great and Powerful Telmark. We, your honored warriors answer your call."
"Come forward and be recognized." Telmark answered.
"Mishemo, warrior." They answered in turn.
"I recognize you Pindego, and you Mishemo. You may stand at ease."
The two warriors approached their leader and visibly relaxed.
"Now, first you, Mishemo, tell me what you saw in the Greek camp today." Telmark ordered.
The warrior took one step forward and began to tell his tale.
"Great Telmark, I entered their camp as I had been ordered by my commanding officer. As we broke through the lines, we fought our way to the center of the encampment, finding the headquarters tent, just where it was in all the other Greek camps." The warrior began. "We killed many Greek infidels as we entered the tent. There we faced a Greek soldier and a woman.
It was just as the prophets described. She faced us and defended herself. She was very courageous, sir, just as I knew she would be. I killed the Greek warrior with her and attempted to bring the Chosen One out with me. But I was unsuccessful." Mishemo said, casting his eyes downward. "The battle had been fierce and glorious, sir, I… I couldn't help myself…" The warrior hesitated, unsure of how to tell his Supreme Commander of his disgrace at what had happened next.
"We all know of the spell placed on a warrior by Kempoch before entering a battle. We have all felt it guiding us through a fight." Telmark said. "What happened? Why did you not reclaim the Chosen One for us?"
"She attacked me, sir. My battle lust was high, I just reacted. A blow from my weapon felled the Chosen One. I do not know if she lives." Mishemo confessed. "As I was attempting to bring her to you, her warrior woman protector entered the tent. It was all I could do to escape and bring this news to you."
Telmark considered the warrior's report for a minute before turning to face Pindego.
"Now, Pindego. I have heard the reports of your capture and interrogation. You alone have met the Chosen One. Could the woman Mishemo describes be her?"
"Great Telmark. It is true that I have seen the Greek woman. I have heard Mishemo's report, and I believe that she is the same woman I saw at the river outpost." Pindego replied.
"And do you believe her to be the Chosen One?" Telmark asked seriously.
Pindego paused, considering his words carefully. "Mighty Telmark, the priests of Arimon have questioned me at length on this. I am a loyal follower of Kempoch, my heart belongs to him. But I know of the prophecies." The warrior took a deep breath and blew it out. "She could be sir. If the prophets are to be believed, she is. I still wish to see her tested, as the prophecy describes, before I will believe, one way or the other."
"Thank you my honored warriors." Telmark said. "Mishemo, I will reserve any punishment until it can be determined if the Chosen One lives or not. You are both dismissed."
The two warriors stiffened to attention, saluted, then turned and strode from the hut, leaving Telmark alone with his thoughts. If the Chosen One is dead, this may all be for nothing. We must know for sure. Telmark thought to himself. The warrior shook his head and made a decision. He summoned Sidon to his hut and ordered him to take a small patrol and scout the Greek city. His instructions were simple, find any sign of the Chosen One, dead or alive. Sidon left at once, taking Pindego with him to positively identify her. Then Telmark sent for a priest of Arimon. He needed to know more about this prophecy.
Making his way slowly through the Horde encampment, the priest was given a wide berth. The men knew of the need to have him there for his skill at healing, but they didn't have to like it. The men treated him with fear and mistrust, and he did nothing to dissuade their perceptions. Moving silently, his long robes billowing slightly behind him, his cowl disguising his face, the priest turned and entered Telmark's hut.
The Horde commander came to his feet as the dark, enigmatic figure entered his chamber. It was known that in order to become a priest of Arimon, one had to display an ability to prophesy the future. Those who could were often treated as outcasts, only finding a place among the Temples of Arimon. The myths told of men able to see into the depths of warriors' heart, a scrutiny most did not enjoy.
Telmark felt the familiar feel of fear well up inside him as the priest approached, but he forced it from his mind. He was the Supreme Commander now. He had nothing to fear except failure. And in this, he would not fail.
"You summoned me, Great Telmark. I am here."
"Come, sit. There's a report of a sighting of the Chosen One within the Greek camp." Telmark said, gesturing to a chair to the right of his raised dais.
"We must recover her." The priest said, seating himself in the chair he had been offered, his eyes lighting up at the news. "She belongs here, with the priests of Arimon."
"Before I can do that, I need to know more about the Chosen One. What can you tell me about the prophecy that could help us?" Telmark asked.
The priest took a deep breath and then began. "According to the sacred texts of Arimon, the Chosen One is a strange woman of courage and self sacrifice. Up until now, we had assumed that strange meant different, yet still Horde, but it would appear that might not be the case. This woman would be a true follower of the teachings of Arimon, putting the welfare of the injured warriors on the battlefield before her own personal safety. She will enter the battlefield and all will become still and silent. The drums of war will hold as she brings her healing touch to those in need." The priest relayed, capturing Telmark's attention.
"The enemy will fall under her spell, not daring to raise a weapon against the power of the Chosen One. And when all those who are in need have been healed by her touch, she will fade to the shadows until her Horde brethren need her once again. When she is seen again, she will have come to us, but she will not recognize those sent to bring her home, lashing out at her brothers and sisters, seeing only an enemy. She has been an outcast for so long, nothing is familiar to her. When you do find her she will not come willingly, only by force will she be brought here.
If one is found and is thought to be the Chosen One of Arimon, she is to be cleansed of her former self in a sacred ritual performed by the High Priests of the Temple. Then and only then may she be judged by Arimon." The priest paused in his narrative, unsure of just how much he should reveal to the commander.
"The ritual is to be performed one full day after she has been returned to her true people, and by the time the moon rises, Arimon will have made his decision known to his prophets. If she passes this test, she will be presented to the people as their Chosen One, who will lead them down the path to honor, glory, and prosperity." The priest concluded.
Telmark pondered what he had been told. Much of it he remembered from the preachings he had heard as a young man, and unfortunately he had heard nothing new to help him in his quest to bring the Chosen One home.
"Is there anything I can do? Am I to just sit by and wait for her to come to me?"
"According to the prophecy, if she is the Chosen One, she will find us. But the prophecy says nothing about helping her find us." The priest replied, his eyebrows raised suggestively.
"What are you saying, priest?"
"All I am saying is that perhaps you could help her to find us. A well placed patrol near to the Greek city to watch for her, maybe? She ventured from an outpost once before to tend the wounded. Perhaps she'll do it again. And if she does leave the city, she may just find our patrol. But that is only a suggestion, of course."
Telmark sat deep in thought, torn between allowing the prophecy to just happen and helping it to happen.
"Thank you, wise priest of Arimon. I will consider what you have said and will inform you of any further developments. You may go."
The priest bowed ever so slightly at the waist and left the hut as silently as he had come. The people needed their Chosen One, but so did the prophets of Arimon. The cult had been steadily losing followers and power to those who worshipped Kempoch, but now it was their time. With the discovery of the Chosen One, many had returned, more devout than before. The High Priests of Arimon could sense their power and influence growing and intended to exploit this opportunity. The Greek woman would pass the judgement of Arimon, one way or the other.
It had been nearly a full day since their flight out of the cut to Corinth. The city had welcomed all the warriors with open arms, well, almost all of them. Xena had confined herself to the wall defenses and the hospital since their arrival, knowing that the citizens of Corinth who remembered the war she had waged there would not be welcoming her back into their city. So the warrioress had immersed herself in the preparations for the coming attack. The scouts had reported that the Horde army was on the move again, and would arrive at the gates of the city a little more than a day. They didn't have much time.
Xena had just left Marmax's command post and was now making her way toward the hospital to check on Gabrielle. She found the young woman sitting among the wounded men, happily telling stories to her rather appreciative audience. Xena later learned that Gabrielle had spent most of her morning making the rounds through the men, telling tales, making the men laugh, taking their minds off their pain. Soon the word had spread outside the hospital that an amazing storyteller was putting on performances in the wards, and by midmorning Gabrielle was not only performing for the wounded, but also for the men who wandered in from their quarters after taking their turn on guard at the wall.
The young bard had recovered fairly quickly from her wounds, but was still a little shaky on her feet. And so, Xena had hovered around Gabrielle for most of the afternoon, until the storyteller had finally had enough. After finishing yet another rendition of how Xena had defeated Posiedon and freed Cecrops, from his curse, Gabrielle cornered the Warrior Princess just out of earshot of the men.
"Xena, why don't you get out of here for a while? Go check on Marmax or something." Gabrielle said, trying to keep control of her exasperation. "You're driving me crazy! And you're making these men nervous."
"Gabrielle, I don't need to check on Marmax…hey…" Xena began, and then paused as she realized just what the bard had said. "What do you mean I'm driving you crazy?" Xena asked, her eyes narrowing.
"Xena, you haven't stopped pacing this room since you got here." Gabrielle explained. "I'm fine, really." She said gently. "You don't need to watch over me every minute."
"Yeah, well I didn't watch over you closely enough yesterday, and I nearly…" Xena began, but then stopped suddenly. No Xena, don't want to go there now, do you? She thought to herself. Damn, too late, we're there.
Gabrielle slowly came and stood in front of the Warrior Princess, forcing Xena to look at her.
"Xena," Gabrielle said quietly. "Xena you can't protect me from everything. I know that and I accept it. And I think it's time that you did to." Gabrielle stared into the ice blue eyes that now gazed into her own, trying to read the emotions that lay behind them.
"Gabrielle, I don't think you do understand." Xena said. "Do you realize just how close you came yesterday?"
"Xena, I do understand, really. And I know exactly how close it was yesterday. But eventually, one day, you won't be there. And I'll have to face the world on my own, and accept whatever consequences that will bring. And you will have to live with those consequences, just like I will." Gabrielle replied.
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but simply could not frame the words in her mind. Gabrielle had attempted to remove from her all the responsibility she felt, all the protectiveness, and had nearly succeeded. But she hadn't taken it away totally. There would still be a part of her that felt responsible for everything that Gabrielle had suffered through, and would suffer through in the future, for she knew in her heart that there would be more trials, for the both of them. Not the least of which was now only a day's march away.
Xena drew a deep breath, "Gabrielle, I know that you can handle just about anything. All I'm saying is that a part of me will always feel responsible for you, will always want to protect you, with my life if I have to."
The bard's eyes softened at Xena's words and she at first didn't know what to say.
"I know you feel responsible for me. Just remember that I make my own decisions, and I accept the risks, just as you do."
Xena nodded slightly, "I'll try, Gabrielle." Xena paused, unsure how to phrase what she had to say next, knowing that Gabrielle would see it as sending her away, but also knowing the journey she was sending the bard on was so very vital. If it didn't mean the difference between life and death for the allied army here in Corinth, she would have never asked her to go, concerned that the trip may be too much for the bard after her injury the day before. In the end Xena had no choice, they desperately needed reinforcements.
"Gabrielle, you know that I understand what you've said, and I also understand that you need to make your own decisions, so please, don't take what I'm going to ask of you the wrong way."
"OK." Gabrielle said, confused by the warrioress' cryptic speech. "What do you want to ask me?"
"Gabrielle, we need you to leave the city and go to the Amazons." Xena began, but stopped when she saw the hurt look on Gabrielle's face. "Believe me, Gabrielle, I'm not doing this because of yesterday…" Xena paused, now was not the time to hold anything back. She needed to be completely honest with the young Amazon. "Ok, I'm not doing this only because of yesterday. Gabrielle, the Horde a little more than a day from here. With the forces we have and the city defenses, Marmax and I figure we have maybe a week before the Horde will simply overwhelm us, march in here, and destroy everything. We need reinforcements and we need them soon. The Amazons and Centaurs are only a day and a half hard ride from here." Xena could see the beginnings of understanding on Gabrielle's face.
"Gabrielle, you are still their Queen, you proved that against Arleia and her followers. The Amazons respect you, but more than that, they'll follow you. And if Ephiny can convince Tyldus and the Centaurs to join us, we may just have a chance."
Gabrielle turned away from Xena and allowed her words to sink in. She could sense the truth in what Xena had said, but was still reluctant to leave. It still felt too much like abandoning Xena to face the horrors of the Horde alone. In the end, Gabrielle knew what she had to do.
"I'll go." The bard said softly, and could almost hear an audible sigh of relief from the warrioress behind her. Gabrielle turned to face Xena. "When should I leave?"
"Just as soon as Marmax can arrange for an escort for you." Xena replied. "Gabrielle, are you sure you're up to the trip? I know I asked you to go, but if you don't think that you can…" Xena began, but was cut off with a wave.
"I'll be fine. Don't worry, I'll take it easy. I promise."
"Gabrielle, you had better keep this promise." Xena said, a wry grin tugging at the corners of her mouth, but the bard could see the deadly seriousness behind those liquid blue eyes. "Come on, let's go get you ready to travel."
Gabrielle smiled in response as they headed off in the direction of the kiosk where she had spent the night.
An hour later, Gabrielle stood outside the stables, hanging on to the reins of a cinnamon colored mare. Her traveling pouch hung from the saddlehorn, her staff tucked safely within easy reach in a saddlebag, Gabrielle was ready to depart. Marmax had sent out a call for volunteers to escort Gabrielle to the Amazon lands, and had been frankly quite surprised at the overwhelming response. In less than half a day, most of the allied army had either heard one of Gabrielle's stories or heard his companions talking about them, and were enamored of the young bard. It was not cowardice that drove the men to volunteer. Many of the older soldiers saw Gabrielle as a younger sister that they wanted to keep safe, the younger men saw a beautiful young woman. In the end, it had been Xena who had made the final selection.
The warrioress had chosen a rather diverse group of two Athenians and a Metoan. Among them was Diomedes, who had been the first to volunteer. Xena felt that she could trust Diomedes, he wasn't the typical Athenian infantryman. He was educated and a good soldier, from what Marmax had been able to gather, and, more importantly, Gabrielle knew him and trusted him. She had also chosen a Metoan soldier Marmax had personally recommended. Pelias had been a Sergeant in the Metoan infantry for nearly 10 years, and his service spoke for itself. Marmax himself had twice decorated him for bravery in action. Rounding out the detail was a second Athenian, Pylades, who had also served his unit and Athens for many faithful years. Pylades was a skilled bowman, and Xena felt that if they were forced at some point to fight, it would be better to have someone there who could kill at a distance.
The warrioress still felt uneasy at sending Gabrielle out while she was still recovering from her head wound, but to delay would risk that they might be sighted by a Horde scouting party and captured or killed. So really, she had no choice. Xena strode purposefully to stand next to Gabrielle. The young bard turned at the sound of her approach.
"Gabrielle, be sure you head north for at least half a day before you turn toward Amazonia, ok?" Xena said.
"I will." Gabrielle replied.
"And try to keep everyone together."
"And don't take any chances, if you see any Horde warriors take cover, don't try to take them on."
"I won't, Xena."
"And…" Xena started, but Gabrielle brought her to a stop.
"Xena, I'll be careful, I promise. You promise to be careful too."
Xena sighed. "I promise." She said simply. "Here, this is for Ephiny to take to Tyldus and the Centaurs." Xena said, handing Gabrielle a small scroll. Gabrielle accepted it, turning to tuck it securely into her saddlebag. Keeping her back to the warrioress, Gabrielle drew in a deep breath, "Stay safe, Xena, please."
Xena was touched by the whispered plea and reached out to take Gabrielle by the shoulders and slowly turn her around to face her. Xena paused a moment to simply look at Gabrielle, as if trying to memorize her face. It could be weeks before they saw each other again, if Ephiny was able to keep Gabrielle within the Amazon village and out of the reach of the Horde army. Gabrielle was not used to such frank scrutiny by the Warrior Princess and it brought a sudden fear to the surface.
"What?" The bard asked. "Why are you looking at me like that, Xena?"
The warrioress shook herself, suddenly aware that she had been staring.
"Nothing. I just…" Oh Hades, why can't I ever say the right thing? "Just be well, Gabrielle. Be well and be safe."
"I will, Xena. I'll see you soon." Gabrielle replied smiling gently, placing her hands on Xena's waist. The warrioress pulled the bard in for a deep hug, wrapping her arms around her shoulders and squeezing her fiercely, feeling Gabrielle's arms tighten around her reflexively. After a few moments, Xena pulled back slightly.
"I'll see you soon." She said, reaching down to give Gabrielle a leg up into the saddle.
"Ugh. Now I remember why I hate riding horses." Gabrielle remarked. "Why can't they be closer to the ground?"
Xena chuckled slightly at the comment as she turned to face the rest of the small company.
"You all know how important this is. Good luck." Xena said, surveying the solemn faces before her.
The rest of the detail mounted up and swung their horses toward the waiting gates, Sergeant Pelias in the lead, followed by Pylades and Gabrielle, Diomedes remained to the rear of the column. As they moved forward, Xena reached out to grab the reins of Diomedes' mount.
"I know we've had this discussion before, and you know what I'm going to say." Xena said in a low voice. "I'm counting on you to keep her safe, Diomedes. Don't let me down."
Diomedes nodded gravely. "I'll defend her with my own life if necessary, Xena. You have my word on that."
Xena nodded once in response, releasing the reins and allowing Diomedes to resume his place at the back of the procession. She could feel it twisting her stomach, the feeling of dread as she watched Gabrielle disappear from view. Xena tried to push the feeling from her mind, but it was to no avail. The feelings only grew in intensity as the gates to the city were closed behind the small company.
Artemis, protect her. Xena prayed silently, not knowing quite what else to do; she then turned and headed for the command post where Marmax was meeting with his new commanders to plan the last minute defenses for the city. The Horde army was only a day away, and they needed to be ready for them.