Xena and her band of warriors moved rapidly north during the next week, as they followed Martakas' elusive trail. The warlord had behaved as erratically as ever when he had moved northward. Several villages ripe for plunder had been totally ignored. A small farming community, on the other hand, had been virtually destroyed, all of its inhabitants brutally murdered. Firsthand information about the warlord was rare at best, but they all knew that they were slowly drawing closer to their target.
As they traveled, the group continued to gain members. Xena had become more receptive to the new additions but she continued to maintain her exacting standards. Only the strongest, most capable fighters were allowed to join them and everyone had to be able to ride. Xena's band had managed to acquire quite a few horses from the numerous raiders and brigands they had fought, so men who were otherwise qualified were occasionally provided with a mount. It was also made completely clear to everyone who joined them that the purpose of the band was not to attack villages, but rather to stop a warlord. Thus, bullies and mercenaries tended to steer well clear of Xena and her crew. The result of all this was the formation of a highly skilled cavalry capable of striking quickly and with deadly force.
The Amazons stayed with Xena and her party but continued to remain a distinct subunit. None of them had considered the possibility that Xena would form an army to take care of Martakas and they weren't exactly certain how to handle the development. They had agreed, however, that they would follow Xena as long as she didn't interfere with their plans to capture Martakas. The formation of the army simply changed the method by which they would go about tackling the warlord.
Xena generally treated the men in her army with indifference. She had no desire to get to know any of them personally, no wish to get emotionally attached to them. She demanded that her orders be followed completely and immediately, making it clear from the start that she would tolerate no dissension in the ranks. Anyone who couldn't handle this was permitted to leave, but no one ever wanted or needed to. They were following one of the greatest military leaders who had ever lived and they had known exactly what to expect before they had joined her. There wasn't a man in the group who didn't admire her, who didn't hope that someday he'd do something to warrant her praise.
Xena's relationship with the Amazons, on the other hand, was more sensitive. The Amazons were a volatile element in her plans for Martakas. The men were completely predictable and easy to handle but the Amazons posed a serious problem for the Warrior Princess. Xena knew that they only followed her because they still believed that she intended to capture Martakas, and she was well aware of the fact that they would try to stop her if they learned that her plans had changed. Although she didn't believe for one instant that they could actually keep her from killing Martakas, out of respect for Gabrielle, she didn't want to have to fight the women. So she continued to act as if she intended to capture Martakas, as she carefully planned how to best deal with the Amazons when they finally did catch up to the warlord.
Xena slowly stretched and yawned, as she looked over the men and women who were scattered around her. Counting the Amazons, over 30 people accompanied her in her search for Martakas. The group had made a temporary camp while they waited for the additional scouts Xena had sent out to report back in. Xena had grown tired of feeling as if she was wandering through the countryside completely blind and had begun sending riders out to reconnoiter the surrounding areas. The previous day, however, she had sent out a few extra men to visit the nearby villages, hoping to gather information about Martakas. All but one of these scouts had returned, but unfortunately only one of them had been able to find out anything and his information had been at best vague. She had been hoping that the last man would have something a little more solid to go on and had delayed their departure while they had waited for him to return. As the day had grown late, however, she began to decide that it was time to get moving once again and to just let him catch up with them while they were traveling.
Xena checked her weapons once to make certain they were secure and then started to give the order to mount up. She opened her mouth to speak and then hesitated, as she saw several of the men focus their attention on something to the east. Moving forwards to get a better look, she saw a man on horseback rapidly riding in their direction. After a few seconds had passed, she identified him as Daylos, the overdue scout.
Daylos rode his horse into the center of the camp before leaping down from the animal to land near the Warrior Princess. Xena saw that the animal was breathing heavily from its exertions and was covered with sweat. With a gesture, she ordered one of the soldiers standing nearby to see to the animal, before turning back to the scout. Daylos was practically panting, but after a few seconds he was able to speak reasonably normally. "Commander, there is a small army moving in this direction."
Xena raised an eyebrow at his statement but remained calm. "An army?" she asked.
"Yes Commander. They had attacked the second village you sent me to, Ferost. They left just before I got there. Now they're headed in this direction."
Xena nodded. "Did you see this army? Do you know it's size and condition?"
Daylos smiled proudly. "Yes Commander. As soon as I heard what had happened, I trailed them and followed them for a while. There are about 35 men, quite a few of them with wounds of some sort that they must have received from the villagers. They were traveling fairly slowly, so I was able to move around them and beat them here. I'd guess they'll reach this spot in a little over two hours at the rate they were moving."
Xena was silent for several seconds, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Daylos, you know this area better than anyone. Is there anywhere on their route that would be a good place for an ambush?"
Daylos considered her question carefully, before a broad grin began to spread across his face. "Yes. There's one place that would be perfect." Kneeling on the ground, he quickly began drawing a rough map in the dirt. "They'll have to travel through this canyon," he said. "It's narrow and the sides are high. Once in, they'll have a hard time turning back around or maneuvering at all for that matter."
Xena knelt beside him to get a closer look at what he had drawn. "How long to get to that canyon? For us and for them."
"For us...less than 30 minutes. For them...a little over an hour."
Xena nodded, as she continued to study the map he had drawn. "Did they take anyone from the village with them?"
Daylos shook his head. "No. It's just the soldiers."
Xena smirked. "Perfect. No hostages to get in the way. Good work Daylos," she said, as she clapped him on the shoulder and then rose to look at the soldiers crowded around her. They looked at her eagerly and she couldn't help but smile slightly at the hopeful expressions on their faces. "Yes," she said softly. "We'll take them. And then we'll return every one of them we capture back to that village and let the villagers enforce whatever form of justice they want on them...Mount up!" she called out loudly and then watched as the men hurried to get on their horses.
Xena's lip curled slightly in disgust as she watched the raiders travel through the canyon. The leader was a fool to allow himself into this situation. He had looked the canyon over with only mild concern before he had entered, and had now allowed his men to get so bunched up that they had even less room than they might have had in which to operate. Apparently he was relying on his forward scout to warn him of danger. This would be rather hard for the scout to do, however, since he was currently lying on the ground with a broken neck, a mile east of the canyon.
Xena waited until the entire army was well within the canyon, before giving the attack signal to her men. Instantly, the soldiers below were showered with arrows. They screamed in terror and pain as the missiles found their marks. Most of those on horseback fell to the ground, a few of them never to rise again, the others writhing in agony. They tried to get away, but there was nowhere that they could go. Their fear rapidly began escalating into outright panic as they realized the danger they were in, and then, just as suddenly as they had begun, the arrows stopped and an eerie silence filled the air.
Xena stayed where she was for a couple of seconds, as she listened to the frightened shouts coming from the canyon below, before rising and moving into plain view of the raiders. "Hello there," she shouted down at them, a cruel smile playing across her lips. "My name is Xena and we have you surrounded."
The soldiers in the canyon were milling around nervously, as they looked up at the warrior standing above them. Suddenly, one of them brought up his crossbow and, without any warning whatsoever, fired the weapon at the woman looking down on them. Xena nonchalantly caught the arrow just before it struck her in the chest and snapped it in two, dropping the pieces to the ground. The soldier who had fired the arrow gave a small, strangled cry as he fell from his horse, a half dozen arrows protruding from his body.
Xena continued speaking as if nothing had happened. "You have two choices. Surrender, or die...Now drop your weapons!" she growled in a vicious, savage voice.
The soldiers looked at each other uncertainly for several seconds. Finally, however, they began to comply. Many of them had been hurt during their attack on the village, and many more had been wounded in the earlier barrage of arrows. Xena's name, her confident attitude, the casual way she had caught the arrow aimed for her heart and the immediate death of the man who had attempted to kill her, all took their toll on the soldiers' collective courage and they began slowly dropping their swords to the ground.
The leader of the raiders looked at his men in disbelief. "What are you doing?" he demanded angrily. "Pick up those...." His words were suddenly cut off as Xena's chakram sliced through his throat, and he fell from his horse to lie motionless on the ground.
Utter silence descended over the canyon for several seconds, as the soldiers stared at their fallen leader, before Xena's voice rang out once more. "That was your only warning. The next time anyone resists...everyone dies. Any questions?"
There were no questions. The soldiers began to immediately throw down their weapons as they realized that death was at hand and there would be no mercy from Xena and those who were with her.
Xena smiled coldly as she watched the soldiers surrender, before calling Askel to her side. "Take your men and get down there. Tie the prisoners up and start moving them back towards Ferost. I'll catch up to you shortly."
Askel smiled and nodded, before signaling to several of the men and beginning to move into the canyon. Xena watched him leave, and then turned to look for one of the other soldiers. Tristlac was already on his way to her side, however, and Xena couldn't help but smile at the man's eagerness. "Tristlac," she said as he arrived, "We need to salvage as much as we can from these raiders and return it to the villagers. As soon as Askel is done, I want you and the others to get down there and start loading everything you can onto the extra horses, including the ones that used to belong to these raiders. Make certain you keep our supplies separate from what you recover here, understood?"
Tristlac nodded. "Understood," he said, before saluting and moving to collect the men he needed.
It took several hours to round up all the prisoners and their plunder and then travel to Ferost. As they drew closer to the small village, Xena sent a messenger on ahead and then followed closely behind with a handful of men. She was well aware of the fact that the sight of her band, with all its warriors, would be a fearsome one for the citizens after the recent attack and she didn't want to drive them into a panic.
As Xena and her vanguard approached the gates, a small group of villagers came out to meet them. Xena could see the fear in their eyes and knew that they weren't entirely convinced of her intentions. She quickly assured them that they had no desire to cause the villagers any harm and that they merely wanted to turn the bandits over to them to do with as they wished. The villagers thanked her, as Xena signaled her men to bring the prisoners forward. As she saw the eager, vengeful looks in the villagers' eyes, Xena knew exactly what the punishment would be for the raiders. She had just delivered these men to certain death, but she didn't care. It was what they deserved.
The village leader came forward to speak with Xena, as the others from his village led the prisoners away. After he had thanked the warrior for her help, Xena informed him that they had also brought back what the raiders had stolen from the village. The surprise on his face was apparent when he heard her words, but he quickly thanked her once again, before following her to where Tristlac and the others were waiting with the recovered supplies. The hoard that had been recovered from the raiders consisted of substantially more than what had been taken from the village and, after considerable argument and discussion, Xena agreed to take part of the surplus for her own men. She then ordered Tristlac and the others to return the rest of the supplies to the villagers.
Xena and her army remained in the village until the next day, tending to the wounded and helping the villagers start to rebuild their town. When they finally left, a few more people had decided to join them, and Xena's army moved northward after Martakas once again.
An impassive expression covered Xena's face as she watched her men practicing maneuvers. There were over 45 men and Amazons in her band now, and there wasn't a weak link in the entire group. She continued to turn down any and all who didn't meet her criteria, but there was still a steady stream of new recruits pouring in as they moved through the countryside.
Xena watched as Askel continued to drill the men in their exercises. For all intents and purposes, Askel had become her second in command. He knew the men better than she did and had actually "recruited" a large number of them himself. He was the perfect right hand man. He was intelligent, energetic, dedicated, and completely devoted. He had made it more than clear that he had no desire to lead; he only wanted to follow where Xena took them. The only men other than Askel that Xena spent any time with were Tristlac and Daylos. Tristlac was essentially in charge of all of their supplies, while Daylos oversaw the other scouts. All of the other men in the band were simply faceless tools.
Xena sighed softly as she glanced around the temporary camp they had set up. They had been moving hard and fast for several days and had arrived in this valley two days earlier. Xena had once again sent out additional scouts to the nearby towns and villages and then had decided to give the remainder of the men a brief rest, while they waited for the others to return. They would be moving again soon, though. They had received reliable information that Martakas was roughly a week's ride to the north of their present location, and as soon as the last of the scouts reported back in, Xena intended to get back on his trail.
As she looked over the men who had joined her, Xena knew she should feel a sense of pride at what she had managed to accomplish. In just a few short weeks, she had assembled one of the finest fighting forces she had ever seen. There wasn't a man in the group who wasn't a strong, capable warrior and completely loyal to her. Every single one of them was prepared to follow her wherever she went. With these men, she could capture entire armies with minimal effort and could protect villages with ease. Suddenly, things that had seemed so difficult before had become routine and commonplace. She was making an obvious, positive difference in people's lives.
And it all meant essentially nothing to her. She would trade it all away, without a moment's hesitation, if she could just see Gabrielle's face, could touch the young woman's cheek, could hear Gabrielle's voice softly whisper her name just one last time. Although there were more people surrounding her than there had been in years, Xena had never felt more alone than she did right now. There wasn't a single man or woman in the group that she considered a friend. They traveled together but that was it. None of them held any interest for her. She didn't want to know anything more about them than what their strengths and weaknesses were, so that she could utilize them in battle. They were nothing more than a means to an end, and she had no intention of allowing any of them, or anyone else for that matter, to ever be more than that to her again.
Xena remembered that she'd once told Gabrielle that she didn't need the bard to survive, that she had only needed her to be complete. It turned out that she'd been right. She had survived the loss of her friend; in fact, some would even say she had managed to thrive. But at some point during the past year and a half, things had changed. She'd become spoiled. It was no longer enough to her to merely survive when her heart had been shattered and her soul had been destroyed.
Xena's musings were brought to an abrupt halt, as one of her scouts dashed into camp and hurried to find her. He took a couple of deep breaths and then began to speak. "Commander, a large army led by a warlord called Sardrasos has just moved into the valley from the south."
Xena raised an eyebrow at the mention of the name. She knew Sardrasos well, had fought against him on more than one occasion. He was nothing more than an inept butcher who won battles due to the sheer number of soldiers he commanded. He had no knowledge of strategy and his men were usually poorly skilled, but by attacking villages with overwhelming numbers he was able to be reasonably successful. If he had entered the valley, then it was only a matter of time before he would begin to attack the villages here, and none of them would have the capability to defeat the warlord once he moved against them.
"How many men does he have," Xena asked thoughtfully.
"Somewhere between 50 and 60," the scout replied.
Xena considered the information carefully. They were outnumbered but, considering the quality of soldier that Sardrasos employed, she was confident that her band could handle them. She was anxious to get moving after Martakas, but leaving the valley at the mercy of Sardrasos was not an inviting option. And if she didn't act right away, the warlord was sure to start attacking the nearby villages within the next couple of days.
Xena shook her head. No, not this time. She wasn't going to be too late again. It was time that she listened to her own advice. Act don't react. By the gods, this time she was going to put a stop to the raiders before they were able to do any damage. She and her band would attack Sardrasos now and destroy his army, scattering it to the ends of the earth.
Xena looked at the hopeful faces of the men surrounding her. "We're going after them. We'll put a stop to the army now, before they have a chance to begin terrorizing this valley. Break camp, we're moving out," she finished, as the men eagerly rushed to follow her orders, elated over the opportunity to strike first for a change.
Xena called Daylos and Askel to her side. "Daylos. I need our best men to start looking for Sardrasos' scouts. The man is a fool and an idiot, but he'll still have outriders moving through the area. I want those men dealt with. Tell your men to do whatever it takes to keep them from reporting back to Sardrasos about our presence."
Xena watched as Daylos hurried off, before turning to Askel. Seeing his inquiring look, she smiled slightly before speaking. "We'll attack tomorrow at dawn. I know Sardrasos and I can promise that's when they'll be the most vulnerable. I want to attack right away, before they have a chance to learn of our presence and set up a defense or a counterattack."
Askel nodded. "What do you want me to do?"
Xena grinned evilly, and then began outlining her plan to the young man.
Xena and her army attacked the warlord's camp at dawn. They had carefully removed all the sentries during the early hours of the morning and they had nearly overrun the entire camp before the soldiers knew what was happening. The battle was brief but bloody. There was no point in taking prisoners, since there was nothing to do with them afterwards. By the end of the battle, Sardrasos and over two-thirds of his army had been killed or critically injured, while the rest had fled in terror for their lives. A few of Xena's men had been killed as well and several others had been wounded rather severely. It was a decisive victory for the Warrior Princess and her men, however. They had rid the valley of a presence that would have slowly devoured everyone within it, as well as seized valuable supplies that would keep them going for at least a week or two.
It took some time to sort out what supplies were usable from what were not, and Xena spent the time taking care of her wounded men. The injuries of Sardrasos' former soldiers, however, were completely ignored; she had no interest in whether they lived or died. By the time they were ready to leave, she had managed to see to all of her men who had been injured. They would be able to travel, but Xena knew that it would be best if they took a day or two to recover fully. She thought about their options for a few seconds before reaching a decision. Sardrasos had had considerable financial wealth as well as supplies and now all of that money was theirs to use as they wanted. They would travel to the nearest village and purchase the few supplies they needed that the warlord had not had on hand and the wounded men could spend a few nights at the local inn while their wounds healed. Decision made, Xena mounted Argo and gave the order to move out.
It didn't take them long to reach the nearest village. Xena ordered her army to a halt well away from the village before continuing on with the wounded men and a few of the others. They approached the town slowly, partially to avoid alarming the citizens and partially to avoid causing unnecessary pain to the wounded men. They were met at the entrance to the village by a group of armed and nervous citizens. Xena brought her men to a halt and then looked the villagers over carefully. They were mainly carrying pitchforks and crude clubs, although one man was wielding a rusty sword and the Warrior Princess struggled not to laugh at the idea that these people actually thought they could stand against Xena and her men. Keeping her hands in plain sight and moving slowly to avoid startling anyone, Xena took a deep breath before speaking. "I need to get supplies for my people and I need to arrange for lodgings for the night for a few of my men who have been hurt," she said calmly.
The citizens looked at Xena and the others carefully. Finally, one of them stepped slightly forward. "Or what?" he asked.
Xena stared at the man with a confused look on her face, before his meaning finally began to register. "No," she corrected him, as she shook her head, "You misunderstood. I intend to pay for what we need."
The distrustful expression on the man's face remained firmly in place. "Are you Xena?"
"Yes," she replied.
"We don't want you or your army here," the man said firmly. "We had heard rumors that you had changed and left your warlord days behind, but we can see now that it's not true."
Xena felt herself growing angry at the man's attitude and rude tone, but she carefully pushed her rising ire back down. "Look, we don't mean you any harm. We just want to buy some supplies..."
The man interrupted her, his voice brusque. "You aren't listening to me. We have nothing to sell to you. There is nowhere for you to stay in our village. You and your army are not welcome here! Now leave us and be on your way!"
Xena stared at the villager, an incredulous expression on her face. Who in Hades did this little man think he was? He was ordering her to leave his village, as if he thought he could tell her what she could and couldn't do. He was refusing to sell her supplies that she could easily take by force if she had half a mind to. She and her army were being refused entrance to a village that they could conquer without breaking a sweat. Xena didn't know whether to be angry or amused by the situation but, after several seconds, her fury began to win out.
Before the warrior could come up with a suitable reply to the villager, however, Askel spoke up indignantly. "Look we just got rid of the army that was threatening this valley...."
"And replaced it with your own," the man finished, cutting Askel off in midsentence. "One army is pretty much like another," he finished coolly.
Askel's face turned red with rage. "Why you ungrateful peasant...."
"ENOUGH!" Xena shouted harshly, glaring at Askel to warn him to be quiet. Despite her order, however, she agreed completely with his reaction and was seething with anger. They had risked their lives for these people. She hadn't expected the villagers to fall at their feet and worship them as gods, but she certainly hadn't expected to be treated like this either. Xena could feel herself getting angrier as she looked down at the superior expression on the villager's face. Gods she would love to just reach out and wipe that look off of his face and show him just how much she appreciated his rudeness and lack of respect. The people in this village were just lucky that Xena was in no mood to argue with them at the moment. Otherwise, she would have enjoyed making her displeasure clear to them all.
Taking a deep breath, Xena brought her mounting fury back under control. The villagers were fools and she wasn't going to waste any more time on them. "Fine, we'll be on our way then," she said tightly, before signaling to her men to move out. Xena waited until they had begun to leave before turning to stare at the man standing in front of her one last time. She smiled inwardly when she saw him blanch, as he saw the icy look of death in her eyes. Having made her point, despite her apparent retreat, Xena smiled menacingly at the rest of the villagers, before slowly turning Argo and riding silently away.
Xena's army continued to grow larger over the next week, as more men flocked to join her banner. They continued to attack the smaller armies that filled the countryside, taking the supplies to feed themselves. They no longer waited to rescue villages and travelers from attack. Instead they engaged in preemptive strikes against nearly every army they came across and, as a result, they slowly, but effectively, began to reduce the number of bandits roaming the land. The only problem was that they had no one to turn prisoners over to. They solved this problem simply, by taking no prisoners.
Xena's mood became steadily darker and less forgiving as they continued to track Martakas. The warrior had never been particularly open or friendly but, as more time passed, she became colder, harsher, and decidedly more uncaring and unfeeling. She was quick to anger and slow to forgive. Her temper was just barely in check and she could feel the peace of mind she had attained over the past couple of years slowly slipping away from her. She was nearly ready to snap and she knew it. Unfortunately, she wasn't certain that she actually cared anymore. As long as she could manage to hold on until after she had killed Martakas, she would be fine.
And it was beginning to look as if that time was about to arrive. They had a confirmed report that the warlord was less than a week's ride to the north of them. They were on his trail and they were gaining ground. Soon she would be able to mete out the justice that the warlord deserved and, hopefully, Xena would regain at least a portion of the peace she had lost when Gabrielle had been taken from her.
Xena and her army were rapidly moving northward as they followed the path of Martakas. Just after midday, Xena looked up to see one of the scouts she had sent on ahead coming into view. She held up her hand to halt the rest of the army and then waited calmly for the rider to close the remainder of the distance to them.
As he arrived, the scout saluted Xena briefly before speaking. "Commander, there's a large group of soldiers about five miles ahead of you. I counted 25 men wearing the insignia of Marniat, and they look like they're waiting for someone."
Xena arched an eyebrow as she heard the scout's report. Marniat was the kingdom they were approaching, and if the soldiers were five miles ahead of them, then that meant that they were waiting just inside the border of the kingdom. It wasn't hard to guess who they were waiting for but she couldn't fathom why. Even though she had traveled through this area extensively in the past, she had never done anything to the citizens of that kingdom during her warlord days. Shrugging her shoulders, she decided to meet the problem directly. The kingdom of Marniat lay directly between Martakas and her army; she would simply find out what the soldiers up ahead wanted.
"Have you scouted the surrounding area as well?" she asked, as they began moving slowly forward once again.
The scout nodded. "Yes Commander. I saw no signs of a trap. They appear to be a 'welcoming committee' of some sort," he replied, with a small shrug of confusion.
Xena nodded and then sent him on ahead again to continue surveying the area. Calling Daylos to her side, Xena ordered him to send out more scouts to look for any possible signs of an ambush and then began moving forward once again, her army trailing behind.
In no time at all, Xena and her army were standing on a low hill facing the 25 soldiers who were apparently waiting for them. Xena remained where she was for several minutes until the last of her scouts had reported in. When he too advised that there was no sign of additional soldiers anywhere in the area, Xena finally began to move towards the soldiers from Marniat, taking with her only five of her men. They rode forward slowly, with Xena slightly out in front, a confident expression on her face as her eyes moved over the soldiers standing in front of her.
When she was roughly 20 feet from the soldiers, Xena stopped. She sat calmly in the saddle, her back ramrod straight, as she met the gaze of the apparent leader. She nodded her head slightly and then waited for him to make the first move.
The soldier cleared his throat before speaking. "You are Xena?"
Xena nodded again. "Yes," she said simply.
"Why have you come to Marniat?"
"I just want to pass through your kingdom. My men and I are tracking a warlord by the name of Martakas. At the moment he's just north of Marniat."
A look of disbelief began to appear on the soldier's face. "You expect us to believe that you and your army simply want to travel through our kingdom as you chase after some other warlord. We're not that stupid, Xena."
Xena shifted slightly in her saddle when she heard the mocking tone of his voice. "I'm telling you the truth. We have no intentions of harming any of your citizens. Your kingdom just happens to lie between us and the man we are chasing."
The soldier stared at her calmly. "I don't care what your 'intentions' are. If you think for even one instant that we will allow you to bring an army into our kingdom and do nothing to stop you, then you are sadly mistaken," he said firmly.
Xena's eyes narrowed slightly, as she glared menacingly at the man standing before her. "Are you trying to tell me that you are refusing to allow me into your kingdom?" she asked in a dangerously soft voice.
"No. I'm telling you that you and your army are being refused entrance to our kingdom. Xena the individual would be permitted but Xena the warlord most definitely is not."
"I am not a warlord!" Xena hissed angrily.
The soldier laughed softly. "No...you just ride at the head of a large army attacking other armies that get in your way. You've been pretty active Xena...word gets around."
Xena felt her anger rapidly building out of control. How dare this man insult and mock her. And how dare he try to tell her where she could and couldn't go. She was the Warrior Princess. She could crush the army standing in front of her without a second thought. She knew exactly what the defensive capabilities of this small kingdom were and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she and her army could easily overwhelm Marniat if they chose to do so.
A red haze began to cloud Xena's vision and she could feel the blood pounding through her veins. She ached to wipe that arrogant expression from the soldier's face, to let him know the folly of attempting to thwart her. Her voice was deadly quiet and filled with barely suppressed rage as she began to speak once again. "Tell me, friend. Do you think for even one instant that you can stop me from entering this kingdom?" she asked, a feral grin tugging at her lips, while her eyes glowed with a predatory gleam. "Do you think you stand even the slightest chance of keeping me from doing exactly what I want to do? Do you think there is anything you can do to keep me from riding right over the top of you and your pitiful army and marching straight through your kingdom taking whatever I want from whomever I want if that's what I should choose to do?"
The soldier swallowed nervously, as he realized the situation he was in, but he was no coward. "Perhaps not," he admitted quietly. "But it doesn't matter. Only a fool would allow a hydra to enter his home without trying to stop it, and only a fool would allow Xena and her army to enter his kingdom without trying to stop them."
Xena stared at the soldier for several long moments as she fought the desire to simply order her men to attack and be done with it. This man was keeping her from her goal. He was keeping her from reaching Martakas. She stared at him intently, her body rigid, the sound of her ragged breathing the only noise that pierced the tense silence that had descended on them all.
Finally, Xena closed her eyes and ordered herself to relax. They could go around the kingdom. It would add a few extra days but, after all this time, what were a few days more or less. She could feel her body trembling with the need to strike out at someone, anyone, and she continued to hold her position as she fought to control herself. She knew that if she was provided with even the slightest provocation she would draw her sword and order an attack and she also knew that her men wouldn't hesitate to follow her. She found that knowledge both exhilarating and terrifying.
As Xena slowly began to calm down, she opened her eyes once again. "All right," she said tightly, knowing that she needed to get away from this situation before it blew up in all of their faces. "We'll go around your kingdom." Without waiting to hear the soldier's response, Xena turned Argo around and began slowly riding away, while the others with her trailed silently behind.
As Xena reached the remainder of her army, she swung down from Argo and checked the straps holding the saddle onto the mare, needing something to focus her attention on other than her recent conversation. As she finished, Askel came forward to meet her. "Well?" he asked.
Xena glanced at him briefly and then addressed the entire army, stepping slightly away from Argo as she did so. "We'll be making a small detour. We won't be passing through Marniat. We'll head west and then north, and then we'll cut back east to catch up to Martakas."
"Why aren't we just going through Marniat?" Askel inquired curiously.
Xena glared at the young man. "Because I said we were going the other way."
Askel glanced over at the soldiers who were still watching them, before looking back at Xena. "They refused us entrance didn't they?" he demanded. "Who do they think they're dealing with? No one treats the Warrior Princess that way!" he growled angrily, as his hand began moving towards his sword.
Xena saw the indignation in the eyes of several of the men around her, and once again she was tempted to simply order them to attack. She struggled with the bloodlust that was swiftly rising to consume her, before she finally shook her head. "No," she said harshly. "We're not going to attack them."
Askel stared at her in astonishment. "I can't believe this. Why in Hades not? They're nothing! We can take them in a heartbeat," he said confidently.
"Askel...I said no and I meant no. Now drop it," Xena ordered softly, her eyes burning brightly as her anger boiled just below the surface. Desperately she fought to resist the allure of his words because she knew he was right. It would be so easy and so satisfying to attack the soldiers and the entire kingdom.
"So you're just going to let them tell you what you can and cannot do?" he asked with a slight mocking tone to his voice. "You're willing to let it be known that the Warrior Princess can be pushed around by commoners? Everyone will think you're afraid to take on real soldiers...that you're only a coward and a bully who runs from a real fight."
Xena could feel the hatred coursing through her body, mounting steadily with every breath she took. Suddenly, her fury erupted and, with a savage growl, she reached out to grab Askel and pull him close. Rage contorted her features as her body shook with anger, and she struggled to speak as clearly and distinctly as she could. "We are not bandits," she spat out. "We are warriors, and we will not attack the men who enforce the laws of this kingdom simply because they don't want us around." She shoved him away, fighting the urge to draw her sword and run him through. She looked around at the rest of the men, glaring at them arrogantly, daring another of them to challenge her authority. Seeing that no one else had any intention of openly questioning her decision, she took a deep breath before speaking again. "We'll go the long way. It won't cost us that much time," she said firmly, before jumping back up on Argo and riding through her men, as she began leading them westward.
The men grumbled as they heard her orders, but they reluctantly agreed. Turning their horses, they began to follow the Commander, muttering under their breaths about what they wanted to do to the soldiers of Marniat. Xena rode slightly ahead of them but she heard their comments and, deep down, she agreed with every word.
The detour around the kingdom of Marniat cost them time but it also resulted in new additions to Xena's army. As she finally began to draw close to the warlord once again, there were over 60 people in her band. They had become a battle-ready group capable of taking on almost anything, and Xena knew in her heart that victory over Martakas was all but assured. Not only that, but her victory would be total. She would be able to not only kill the warlord, but she would be able to destroy his entire army as well. She had a vastly superior army and she knew the area they were in like the back of her hand. Martakas was slowly working his way into a very precarious position and, within the next couple of days, she would be ready to launch her attack.
Xena was examining a map of the area, despite the fact that she knew this region perfectly. Studying the map, however, gave her something to think about while she tried to decide what her next move would be. She had one major problem at the moment: the Amazons. She knew they were beginning to seriously doubt that she really intended to capture the warlord. Fortunately, she also knew that they didn't know what to do about that fact. They were unwilling to directly accuse her and so they watched and waited, hoping to somehow get a sign as to what her intentions actually were. She had come up with a tentative plan for what to do with them during the battle, however, and at the moment she was trying to work out the final details to ensure that nothing went wrong with her plans.
As she continued to plot and scheme, she heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Looking up, she saw Basdio, one of her scouts, approaching rapidly.
"Commander, there is a small army to the northwest of us. Roughly 20 men, but they didn't look like much more than common bandits," Basdio said, as he reached her side.
Xena cocked an eyebrow at the statement. "What direction are they headed?"
"Southwest." he replied.
Xena thought for a second and then nodded briefly. "Good. We won't have to worry about them getting in our way," she said, as she focused on the map once again. After several seconds, she realized that Basdio hadn't left yet. Looking up, Xena saw that the young man appeared to be rather confused. "What is it?" she asked.
"Well, it's just that the army is close by...and they're moving towards Yorithis...," he stammered, growing uncomfortable under Xena's unblinking stare.
"Okay. And?" she asked, not seeing his point.
"And...well they'll attack that village as soon as they reach it...I thought that maybe....," his voice faltered, as he saw the strange look in the warrior's eyes.
"Let me see if I have this straight. We're a few short days from finally catching up with Martakas...and you think we should take the time to go after some other petty army?" she asked incredulously.
"Well, I just thought that's what you would want to do," he said lamely.
A look of absolute fury came over the warrior's face. "Don't ever assume you know what I want to do!" Xena snarled. "Why should I want to bother protecting a few dozen peasants who are only going to be ungrateful for my help anyway? I've been chasing this man for over a month...and now you expect me to waste my time dealing with a bunch of worthless bandits?"
Basdio shook his head. "I'm sorry, Commander. You're right. I should never have tried to suggest...."
Xena cut him off. "Don't apologize," she snapped angrily. "Just go find Askel and tell him I want to see him," she ordered, wanting the man out of her sight.
Xena watched as the young man hurriedly ran to find Askel. Gods, what was the matter with her? That boy did nothing wrong. He questioned her decision, though, and that was something she was in no mood to tolerate at the moment. How dare he think that he knew her mind, that he knew what she wanted to do! He was nothing, an insignificant little man who had no more importance than a piece of equipment.
Xena forced herself to take several deep breaths, as she felt herself beginning to rage out of control. She had to hold on for a little while longer. If she could just manage to keep everything together for a few more days she would be fine. The nightmare would be over and she could move on with her life. Slowly she felt her breathing and pulse rate return to normal. The boy was right, and she would inform Askel of her plans as soon as he arrived. They would deal with the small army first, destroy it before it reached Yorithis, and then they would move on to take care of Martakas.
Xena and her army completely wiped out the bandits that were headed towards the village of Yorithis. After taking what they wanted from the raiders' supplies, Xena turned her focus back to Martakas. Slowly her army drew closer to their target, waiting for the perfect moment to make their move. She had done it. It had been well over a month since she had begun her chase but, at long last, Xena had caught the warlord and now she had him right where she wanted him.
Xena smiled as she contemplated the fate of Martakas. The warlord didn't know it yet, but his days on earth were numbered. He had exactly two days of life left. Xena and her army would spend tomorrow finishing their final preparations and the day after that they would launch their attack. The only questions that remained were how Martakas would die and how long he would be able to survive the absolute torture that Xena planned to inflict upon him.
Bulartha called out angrily to her slave, before smiling and turning back to the man seated at the counter in front of her. Bulartha was a large, powerful woman who ran her tavern with an iron hand and an acid tongue, but she could be reasonably charming to her customers when she wanted to be and, at the moment, she wanted to be. The current focus of her attention was a handsome young man who was traveling through her village. If Bulartha had her way, however, the man would be delaying his departure from the village for a day or two, or perhaps three or four.
Bulartha growled under her breath, as she saw another customer asking for a refill, and she straightened up to look around for her slave. The keg needed to be replaced and Bulartha had no intention of doing it...that was why she had bought the slave in the first place. However, she was getting fed up with the slave's laziness. Bulartha was an understanding owner who felt that one beating a day was more than sufficient for any slave. Her patience was being sorely tested by her newest purchase, though. She was beginning to think that she would have to begin administering a second daily beating as well, and perhaps she should start using the whip every day instead of just every other day as she had been doing.
Finally the slave appeared out of the back storage room and began quickly walking towards Bulartha. "I'm sorry I took so....," she started to say, before Bulartha backhanded her across the face as hard as she could, knocking the young woman into the wall.
"No excuses!" the tavern owner snarled angrily. "Now replace that keg before I lose my temper." Ignoring her slave once again, Bulartha turned to face the man at the bar, sighing sadly. "What can you do?" she asked with a helpless shrug. "Good slaves are so hard to come by nowadays."
The young woman hastily began moving the empty keg out from behind the bar and began rolling it into the back storage room, anxious to avoid another beating from her ill-tempered mistress. It didn't take long for her to maneuver the keg into the back room and, with a sigh, she shut the door and then leaned against it heavily.
Gabrielle carefully raised her hand to her mouth, flinching slightly as she felt the side of it already beginning to swell. Well, one more bruise wasn't going to make any difference at the moment, at least she didn't seem to be bleeding this time. And she certainly wasn't going to be giving any performances any time soon, so it wasn't as if she needed to be too concerned about a swollen lip.
Gabrielle groaned softly, as she began pushing the empty keg to the side, and wondered for the thousandth time how she had ever ended up as Bulartha's slave. She remembered sitting in the tavern in Nalimore telling stories to the customers. They had heard the people screaming outside the tavern and she had grabbed her staff and run out to see what was happening. She remembered the soldiers charging down the street towards them. She remembered one of the soldiers lifting his sword to plunge it into a small child before she disarmed him and then knocked him unconscious. And she remembered an explosion at the base of her skull just before her world had gone black.
The next thing she could recall was waking up in a dark holding cell. She had no idea how long she'd been unconscious or how long she'd been in that room. She had eventually been tossed into a wagon and, after several days of travel, she had ended up in this village. She didn't know where this village was and she wasn't entirely certain what it was called. She just knew that slavery was legal here and she had been sold on the auction block to Bulartha the day after she had arrived.
Gabrielle didn't know exactly how long ago the attack on Nalimore had occurred, but she knew that it had been at least a month. At first, she had waited confidently for Xena to arrive to rescue her, knowing that it wouldn't take the warrior long to find her once she returned to Nalimore and discovered that Gabrielle had been captured by slavers. As time had passed, however, the young bard had begun to grow worried. There was no way that it should have taken Xena this long to track her down and Gabrielle could only come up with one possible reason to explain the delay: something had happened to Xena. She knew she should never have allowed the warrior to go off without her. She just prayed that Xena had simply been delayed by the weather or some other minor problem and not because she had been injured...or something even worse.
Gabrielle tugged slightly at the collar she was wearing around her neck, as she crossed the room to where the full kegs were standing. The neck band marked her as a slave in this village, and as long as it was around her neck, escape from the town would be all but impossible. Bulartha had made certain that Gabrielle understood the punishment for trying to remove it. If she caught Gabrielle without the collar, or even caught her trying to remove it, she had promised the young woman a beating that would make her daily ones seem like tender caresses. A second incident would result in an even more severe thrashing. And if Gabrielle was so foolish as to attempt to remove the band a third time, then Bulartha would simply kill her and be done with it. She refused to put up with a slave that was constantly trying to escape.
Gabrielle put aside her worries about Xena and any fleeting thoughts of escape, as she reached around to grab hold of the new keg. It was extremely heavy, but the young woman knew better than to complain. It would only earn her a beating if she was lucky, and a beating plus a whipping if she wasn't. Taking a deep breath, she slowly began to move the large keg, beads of sweat appearing on her forehead as she struggled with the load.
"My how the mighty have fallen. You certainly have changed from the last time I saw you in a tavern. Don't they feed you here?"
Gabrielle turned in shock at the sound of the first familiar voice she had heard in ages. To her astonishment, she saw Hrothgar, the man she had met in Nalimore, leaning against a cabinet watching her calmly. "Hrothgar!" she said happily, as she quickly moved towards him. When she drew closer, however, her steps faltered, as she noticed a strange look in his eyes. "What are you doing here?" she asked uncertainly.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing. After all...it's because of me that you're here in the first place. I was curious as to how things were going for you," he replied pleasantly.
Gabrielle's jaw dropped as she heard his words. "You? You're the one responsible? But...but why?" she asked, while her mind raced frantically as it tried to assimilate this rapid turn of events.
He shrugged. "I just decided that it was time to get the irritating little blond out of the way once and for all...and this seemed like the perfect way to do it," he replied, as he began to laugh menacingly.
"'Irritating little blond'?" Gabrielle repeated in a confused voice, before suddenly taking a closer look at the man standing in front of her. "Ares," she said dully, recognizing the laugh that had long since been burned into her brain.
As Gabrielle watched, the image of the man before her slowly changed into that of the God of War. "At your service," he said with a mocking bow.
"Ares. I should have known. So all of this is just another attempt to get Xena back?" Gabrielle shook her head. "It's not going to work Ares, just like none of your other plans worked."
"Ahh...but you see those other times I made a fatal mistake. I forgot to deal directly with you, but I've corrected that problem this time, and now it's only a matter of time before I have Xena back."
"It won't work Ares. Xena will find me eventually. It may take her awhile, but she'll track me down."
Ares looked at her with mock sympathy. "Oh...I'm sorry...I forgot to tell you. You're dead...or at least Xena thinks so."
"Dead?" Gabrielle gasped in surprise.
"Uh huh. And 'Hrothgar' told her the horrible story of your death in glowing details. That story alone was almost enough to push her over the edge," he informed her with a satisfied grin.
Gabrielle shook her head, trying to deny Ares' words. "It won't work Ares. Xena won't believe I'm dead unless she sees my body."
"Actually...I had the same thought. So I made certain she saw the body with her own eyes so that there would be no room for doubt in her mind."
"How...how did you...."
Ares rolled his eyes. "Come now Gabrielle. I'm Ares, God of War. I can alter my appearance at will, raise the dead, and switch Xena and Callisto into each other's bodies. Just how hard do you think it was to make one corpse look like someone else's? The villagers found 'your body' afterwards and assumed that you had been killed during the battle. Fortunately, after the story I told Xena about your death, she wasn't in the mood to talk to any of the other villagers about what had happened. She'd definitely have gotten a different answer from any of them than the one Hrothgar gave her," he said, a broad smile covering his face.
Gabrielle stared at him in disbelief, finding it difficult to speak as she considered the ramifications of what he was saying. "No Ares, you're wrong...Xena won't return to her old ways just because she thinks I was killed," Gabrielle denied, but there was a trace of doubt in her voice.
Ares sighed. "You know...I was worried for awhile that you might actually be right. I mean, I go to all the trouble to 'kill' her lover....," Ares stopped speaking and smirked as he saw the expression on Gabrielle's face. "Yes I know about you two. I admit, I was almost jealous at first but I realized afterwards that it was the best possible break for me. Killing her friend was one thing, killing her lover...now that's really going to go a long way to pushing her back to the edge," he said with an evil grin. "But where was I?...Oh...that's right...I go to all the trouble to kill her lover, and there was still an outside chance that after all your meddling and interference she might actually choose to stay on that stupid path she's been on for the past couple of years." Ares shook his head sadly before smiling again. "Fortunately, that hasn't been the case."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle demanded.
"I mean that Xena is already riding at the head of an army. She has been for weeks."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No...you're lying. She wouldn't do that."
"Oh she would and she is. Here, see for yourself," he said, before gesturing towards the far wall.
As Gabrielle turned to face the wall, she saw that it was now covered with the image of Xena riding at the head of a vast army. As she watched, she caught sight of several Amazons that she recognized from the village but, in addition to those women, Xena appeared to be leading dozens of unfamiliar soldiers, all on horseback. As she looked at Xena again, Gabrielle realized that she barely recognized her friend. Xena had often slipped into "warrior mode" while they were traveling but this was far and beyond anything she had ever seen before. The warrior was calmly and efficiently giving orders to her troops and she appeared to be totally in her element as she commanded her forces.
Gabrielle looked at Ares. "This is just another one of your illusions Ares. It's not real," she said weakly, desperately trying not to believe what she was seeing.
Ares grinned at her. "We both know you don't believe that Gabrielle. And to answer your next question...No, she's not back in my fold yet but it's only a matter of time."
"What do you mean?"
"Xena has been slowly building up that army from nothing. She started out using it to rescue villages, then capture raiders that had already attacked villages, and then finally she started attacking other armies before they even had a chance to make a move. So far she's still working to protect peasants and farmers...but that won't last much longer. Her rage is building out of control. By the time she finally catches the man she holds responsible for your death, her anger will know no bounds and she'll murder him in cold blood. She'll call it justice, but deep down she'll know that it was nothing more than a violent act of revenge. And as soon as she crosses that line again, as soon as she kills someone just because she wants to, she'll be mine!" he finished, as he waved his hand, causing the image of Xena to disappear. "It really was much simpler than I thought it would be. Apparently I overestimated the influence you had had on her. Obviously there was still a large part of her that wanted to be back leading an army. It makes sense. I'm sure you're an amusing little distraction, but Xena is destined for greatness. She must know that she could never really make much of a difference in people's lives all by herself...No, to really make a difference she needs an army," he said with a wide grin, "And now she has one!"
Gabrielle glanced sharply at the god, wondering if he also had the ability to read minds. For several days before the attack on Nalimore, Gabrielle had been wondering about Xena's comments about needing more help, about the odds always being against her. Obviously Xena had managed to even the odds by gathering an army to help her, and Gabrielle had to admit that an army would be considerably more help to Xena than one lone bard who refused to kill.
Gabrielle watched the god gloat for several seconds. "Why did you go to all this trouble over me Ares?" she finally asked quietly.
Ares looked at her in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"I mean why bother coming here to tell me all this...and why fake my death in the first place? Wouldn't it have been easier to just kill me and be done with it?"
"Ahh...yes I guess it would have. But you see, you've interfered on too many occasions with my plans for Xena. Now I could kill you, but that would just send you to the Elysian Fields. Not much of a punishment there. On the other hand, arranging to have you sold into slavery...well that's the gift that just keeps on giving! Why tell you about my plans for Xena? Because I know it's going to eat you up inside knowing that she's back with me. And why tell you that Xena thinks you're dead? Because I don't want you to have any hope of rescue. And who knows, maybe now that you know Xena won't be riding in here one day to rescue you, you'll get desperate enough to try to escape, even though we both know that it would be essentially impossible for you to do so," he finished with a smirk.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply but then stopped, knowing that nothing she could say would make any difference and it would only serve to provide the god with more amusement. Ares chuckled again when he saw the expression on her face, then paused as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. "I believe this is my cue to leave," he said softly. "But before I go, let me leave you with a gift...a little help in the escape plans that are undoubtedly running through your mind at the moment."
As Ares slowly faded from view, he made a small gesture and, to Gabrielle's astonishment, two of the straps that held her neck collar came undone. Before she could react, the door to the supply room opened and Bulartha walked in. "What's taking you so long?" she demanded angrily, before catching sight of the collar on Gabrielle's neck which was now hanging almost completely off. "I warned you about trying to remove that!" she screamed, as she charged across the room to grab Gabrielle. Slamming her up against the wall, Bulartha watched as Gabrielle slowly fell to the ground and then began kicking and beating her, until the young woman was begging for forgiveness. "That's one," the woman hissed into Gabrielle's ear, as she reached down and fastened the straps to the collar once again. "The next time I won't be so merciful. Now get up and get that keg moved out of here before I have to show you what I do to slaves that are too slow," she said, turning and leaving Gabrielle alone to struggle painfully to her feet.
Return to Jenbob