The title of this story is "The Holy War" for a reason, and since wars don't tend to be very nice, there is quite a little bit of violence, blood, and death in this story. If that sort of thing offends you, please stop reading now.
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THE BATTLE FOR CORINTH THE SECOND DAY
The day had become sultry and still, the allied army lay tensed and ready for battle. They had repaired what damage they could throughout the night and into the morning hours. The main gates had been reinforced, but Xena and Marmax knew that they were the weakest points in the defenses. They had done all that they could, now the army could only wait for the attack to come.
Xena had made the rounds of the defenses with Marmax that morning, and now was atop the battlements at the General's side, intently scanning the tree line for any sign that the Horde army may be approaching. The heat of the day sapped at her strength, and Xena found her mind wandering back to her dream of the night before. The images had left an uneasiness in the pit of her stomach that she just couldn't shake. The warrior lived by her instincts, and her gut was telling her that Gabrielle was in some sort of danger. No, Gabrielle is safe with the Amazons. Xena mentally shook herself. Get your mind back on what you're doing here, Warrior Princess. The Horde is out there, and they're going to be coming for you... any moment... they're coming. So get ready for them.
Returning her attention to the trees, Xena caught the first hint of movement out of the corner of her eye. Locking her attention onto that place, the warrior concentrated completely, searching for any other signs of movement. Then there it was.
With an ear splitting shriek that shattered the noontime stillness, the Horde came pouring from out of the darkness of the trees. In loose rows that moved like a wind across the tall grasses, the Horde drove forward toward the waiting allied army.
But the allies did not panic. The sheer size and ferocity of the army facing them may have dispirited any other defender, but the allies stood their ground, refusing to concede fear to their enemy. This was their greatest battle, here in Corinth, the battle for their homeland, a battle to save Greece from this menace, and to wipe the Horde from the face of the earth. The Horde had continually encroached upon their homes, but now the line had been drawn here at Corinth, and the allies were saying you might come this far, no farther. Here it ends. Better that they die fighting for Greece, than to be driven from their homeland, hunted like animals.
Reports began to arrive from their lookout posts atop the ridges surrounding the city. The Horde was holding nothing back. Their entire force was now arrayed against them, and they were coming at them head on. No flanking maneuvers this time, only a direct frontal assault in an attempt to overwhelm them with sheer numbers. The order was given, and the Athenian bowmen made their weapons ready, notching arrows into longbows, awaiting the command to fire.
The strategy for the first wave of attackers was simple. Lines and trenches had been dug throughout the night, and now the members of the Metoan and Corinthian armies were lying within the furrows, ready to strike at the advancing Horde army. Surprise would be their ally, waiting to reveal themselves until the Horde had already emerged completely from the cover of the trees.
And then the order was given, and the Metoan and Corinthian soldiers raised up from the cover of the trenches to lash out at the advancing Horde. The Athenian longbows hummed over their heads as the men atop the walls of the city loosed their shafts, cutting down the foremost of the Horde ranks with deadly accuracy. The screams of the dying now rose above the shrieks of attack. Again and again the archers fired into the approaching army, but already the Horde warriors had reached the edges of the entrenched soldiers, and hand to hand combat ensued.
The fighting was terrible, and soon the whole of the expanse between the city walls and the trees lay soaked in blood. The blood of the Horde and the blood of the allies ran together in rivers, staining the earth in a terrible testament to the horrors of war. The allies fought with every last ounce of their strength, determined to force the Horde back to the trees. Swords flashed in the sun, and battle-axes gleamed as they sliced and cut their way through their enemies. Dust from their booted feet rose in the air, obscuring all that lay beneath. No longer could the archers see clearly enough to provide cover fire for the men below, the risk of cutting down their own men was simply too great.
The men in the trenches held as long as they could, and now could stand no longer. Outnumbered, they saw their carefully erected defenses begin to crumble. Horde warriors thrust their way forward, breaking through their lines, opening the way for their comrades to follow. The allies knew they were fighting a hopeless battle against insurmountable odds, and began to fall back to the walls of the city. Marmax ordered that the gates be opened, and quickly the allies retreated along carefully planned routes to the safety of the city. Before the Horde realized what was happening, the allies were within the city once again, and the gates shut behind them.
Instantly the Horde was in pursuit, pouring through the trenches, and finding themselves running afoul of the hundreds of snares and pitfalls laid for them. For a moment the entire rush stopped. But as their numbers increased, the Horde suddenly rushed forward once again, overrunning those caught within the traps. Massing on the other side of the field of death, they charged. Up to the walls, swarming like a pestilence atop one another until they were pouring over the gates.
The allies were driven back by the ferocity of the attack, but quickly recovered to counterattack, following Xena's example. The warrior seemed to be an unmovable force atop the battlements, holding off the rush of Horde warriors almost single-handedly. Her sword moving with such deadly speed as to be nearly invisible, her chakram cutting down men three at a time. Her face a mask of fury, even the men around her cringed from the sight of it. She was truly of Ares, his greatest disciple, and his most learned student.
Heartened by Xena's display of power and tenacity, the allies held, iron and muscle bracing the gates and repelling the attack. Cries of pain and frustration filled the air as the Horde surged mindlessly against the walls of the city. They fell back and regrouped for another attack, but their momentum had been lost. Strung out the length of the walls, from the city back to the trees, they could not seem to sustain a rush. Bolstered by the courage shown by Xena, the allied defenders beat them back. Arrows and spears cutting into the Horde ranks as hundreds collapsed.
Seeing his opportunity, Marmax ordered that the gates be thrown open and the allies rushed forth. Into the tangled mass of Horde warriors they charged, driving them back down toward the edge of the forest. Sweeping down past the trenches, the allies battled relentlessly, until finally the Horde rallied. Back they came, reinforced by those still emerging from the cover of the trees. The allies held briefly, then retreated once again to the safety of the city walls, bracing themselves once again to repel the assault.
So it went, throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Back and forth the battle raged, the Horde thrice gaining the top of the battlements, and thrice was driven back. Each time that it seemed that the allies could hold no longer, there was Xena, unleashing her seemingly boundless energy and fury upon the Horde warriors. Thousands died, though the dead numbered highest for the Horde, who fought with little regard for life, spending themselves willingly on the defender's formations. Yet allied lives were lost as well, and their numbers seemed to dwindle steadily, while the Horde army never seemed to grow less.
Then, without warning, the Horde withdrew from their attack. Back across the trenches and into the darkness of the trees they went, not in haste, but almost reluctantly, crying out their frustration as they faded into the forest. Atop the gates and battlements of the city, the allies did not question the retreat, but were merely grateful for it. At least for one more day the city of Corinth was safe. But how much longer could they hold out, awaiting reinforcements?
That same night, several hours after the Horde had retreated into the woodlands, a messenger came to Marmax and Xena as they met to plan how to reinforce the defenses. In an excited voice, he announced that the Thracians and Macedonians had arrived.
Marmax breathed an audible sigh of relief. The last thing they had expected was for the Thracians and Macedonians to arrive so quickly. Looking to Xena, he voiced his relief, "Thank the gods, we may now just have a chance at living to see the end of all of this."
Xena nodded once, "Let's just hope it's enough to hold off the Horde until the Amazons and Centaurs get here. Then we can think about living to see the end."
"Come on, let's greet the newcomers." Marmax replied, leading the way out of the command chamber and into the courtyard beyond, and found it filled with row upon row of soldiers of the royal Thracian and Macedonian armies. Armored with leather and iron, armed with longbows, swords and pikes that glimmered in the torchlight, they looked expectantly into the eyes of the leaders now come to greet them.
Their two commanders stepped forward, the Thracian a huge man with a double edged broad sword strapped to his back; the Macedonian smaller in stature but solid, a great two edged axe hanging from his belt.
"General Marmax, I am Epopeus, Commander of the Thracian Royal army. This is Corineus, Commander of the Macedonian Royal army. We come with 3,000 men. We come to stand with you against the Horde. We have not all been allies in the past, but the time for feuding amongst ourselves is past. We know of the Horde threat, there have been some minor skirmishes even in our two lands. We know of the danger that the Horde presents to Greece, they are an evil which threatens us all. We must put aside our differences and stand together now. We have come, Thracian and Macedonian, to stand with you."
Marmax was stunned by the eloquence of the man before him. He could only have hoped for such a sentiment of goodwill to exist. As Epopeus finished, in a carefully controlled gesture, both he and Corineus dropped to one knee, signifying their pledge of service to the allied army and its commander. Behind them, their men followed suit, and silently knelt before Marmax.
Xena could see the relief in Marmax's eyes and for that moment there was true hope in her heart, but it was quickly banished by the dark thoughts that had continually plagued her. It's not enough... there are too many of them. They will slaughter us to a man. If only the Amazons and Centaurs were here... then there would be cause for hope. But without them, we cannot withstand the onslaught for long. They fight so fiercely... never before, in any of the stories of the Horde, have they been so driven. They are truly out to destroy us this time.
Marmax gestured to the men gathered before him, "Come, to your feet my brothers. Tomorrow the battle will begin again, tonight you must rest."
The men rose, and the General began issuing orders to see to their billets and to provide for a hot meal. The Thracian and Macedonian soldiers broke ranks in an orderly fashion, as they were escorted to their bunks.
Xena watched with only mild interest. Marmax was right, there would be another battle coming with the new day, and she needed to be ready for it. The warrior made her way to her quarters determined to get at least a couple of hour's sleep.
The third day of the battle for Corinth belonged to Marmax and the allied army. A day of fury and pain, of death and amazing courage as the allies again held back the forces of the Horde. The arrival of the forces from Thrace and Macedonia had given the men hope that they could prevail, and they fought with renewed fervor.
In the history of Greece, never before had so many come together to battle a common enemy. United they presented a force to be reckoned with, but they held no illusions. The men fighting in this epic struggle were well aware that it would take a great deal of blood and sacrifice to wipe the Horde from their land.
The courage and bravery shown by even the most common soldier in the allied army seemed to energize Xena, and she became the spark on the battlefield that gave them all life. She seemed to be everywhere at once, sometimes atop the battlements, at other times helping to shore up the gates as they were relentlessly pounded by the Horde. Wherever she went, the cry went up and the allies would rally. Still outnumbered and feeling the pressure of attack from all sides, the allies still were able to throw back the attack. Xena was something more than mortal that day, feeling the bloodlust fill her heart and fighting with such ferocity that it seemed nothing could stand against her.
It didn't occur to the Warrior Princess until well after that day, that against her will she had become exactly what Marmax had hoped, a leader of these men. She did it unconsciously, but that undeniable spark that made her a great leader in the past and made her a leader here, if only by her example.
Twice it seemed that the Horde would overrun the walls and take the city, and twice the fresh troops of the Macedonian and Thracian armies beat them back. The third time the Horde attacked, the Thracians mounted such a ferocious counterattack, that they were able to sweep the enemy all the way back from the walls of the city to the edge of the forests beyond. By then, the daylight was fading into dusk, and the Horde had seemed to lose their impetus, and withdrew from the battlefield.
Darkness descended quickly over the allies and they settled in for a restless night of waiting, wondering when the next attack would come. Would the Horde wait for dawn, or will they attack tonight? It was a now familiar uneasiness, and one that settled heavily upon the shoulders of the leaders of this great army.
Xena watched the Horde retreat from the field, the blood and gore from a score of Horde warriors dripping from her sword and chakram. The strain of nearly constant fighting since they had arrived in Corinth was beginning to chip away at her strength; she was well aware of the fatigue creeping in at the edges of her mind and body. She knew that soon, the fatigue would require she rest. But now, there were plans to be made before the next Horde attack.
They met in the command hut after seeing to the defenses for the night. Marmax, Xena, Epopeus, Corineus, and the leaders of the Athenian, Corinthian, and Thessalian forces all gathered together to discuss their strategies, now that the Thracians and Macedonians had joined the fight.
"We must take the initiative now, while the men are in good spirits. We must attack." Argued Corineus, but Marmax shook his head.
"It's too great a risk. If we fail in this attack, then we will lose Corinth, and very likely lose Greece to these barbarians. No, we cannot chance it."
Xena had been conspicuously silent throughout the exchange, but now felt it was time to voice her opinion. "I have to agree with Marmax, we are simply not strong enough yet to attempt an attack. We have enough men now that the Thracians and Macedonians are here to hold off the Horde, but until the Amazons and Centaurs arrive, all we can do is hold them to a standstill and hope they waste time and resources trying to breach our defenses."
Corineus stood forward and spoke, "And how can you be so sure the Centaurs and Amazons are on their way? If they don't come we'll have wasted this opportunity, and we may not get another."
"They'll be here. Trust me."
"Are you willing to bet your life on that?" Corineus replied.
"Yes, I am." Came the cool and confident reply.
Xena's calm demeanor seemed to reassure the others, and Marmax moved on to the city defense plans for the following day. For two hours they labored over troop placement and reserve status, until finally all were at ease with their roll in the coming battle.
"All right, get some sleep men. Gonna be a long day tomorrow." Marmax said, running his hands through his graying hair. They all took leave of their commander, returning to their quarters to get some well deserved sleep, leaving Xena and Marmax alone. The warrior silently regarded the General a moment before speaking.
"You should get some sleep too. You'll do your men no good if you collapse from exhaustion."
Marmax smiled slightly, "Only if you agree to get some sleep too, I think we both could use it."
Xena nodded once and then led the way out of the command hut and out into the cool night air. The stars were so clear and bright that night that the sky seemed to be alive with their sparkling light. Xena couldn't help but allow her thoughts to drift to the peaceful nights spent beneath those same stars with only Gabrielle and Argo for company. When this was all over, she was going to enjoy returning to that infinitely simpler life.
As they passed beneath the ramparts there was suddenly a great deal of activity above them, and they stopped to investigate. Marmax inclined his head to gaze up at the men on watch, "What is it? What's happening?" He demanded.
The men were startled by the angry shout, but quickly recovered themselves. "General Marmax! This just sailed over the wall and into our camp!" One of the men shouted back, holding a single arrow shaft aloft.
"Bring it down, I want to see it!"
"Yes sir!" The soldier replied, hastily making his way down to where the General and Xena awaited him. Upon reaching the ground, the soldier stood at attention and handed over the shaft, awaiting any further orders. Marmax took the arrow and inspected it closely.
"Xena I don't recognize these markings. Who does this arrow belong to?"
Xena took the arrow from him and immediately broke into a wide grin. "Marmax, your men just may get to plan that attack afterall."
"What? I don't understand..."
"This arrow belongs to the Centaurs, this color here..." she said, gesturing to the feathers, "indicates the house of Tyldus. And these cuts here, along the shank, those are the Amazon symbols for the Royal House. This is a message from the Amazons and Centaurs. They are close and requesting to be allowed into the city."
Marmax smiled and spun on his heel, issuing orders to the men manning the gates. "Open the gates! Open the gates! You men there, be ready in case the Horde decides to take advantage and attack!"
Instantly the men came to life, working to carry out Marmax's orders. The gates slowly came open, swinging on massive hinges and the men drew their weapons in readiness. Out of the darkness there was movement, as the first of the Centaur cavalry came into view. Proud and tall, Tyldus led his Centaurs through the gates and into the wan light of the courtyard, followed closely by Ephiny and her masked Amazon warriors.
Xena moved forward to greet them, extending her hand to grasp Tyldus' in the customary warrior fashion.
"Tyldus, good to see you. You arrived quickly, we didn't expect you to get here until tomorrow at the earliest."
"Xena, good to see you as well. When we heard of the threat and the dire circumstances, we came as soon as we could. Your friend the bard can be very persuasive when she wants to be." Tyldus replied, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Xena returned the smile. "Yeah, she can be. Let me go talk with the Amazons a moment. I think Marmax is arranging for your billets as we speak. We'll talk later, after you all are settled in."
Tyldus nodded as Xena moved off in the direction of Ephiny and the Amazons. The Amazons had doffed their masks, and now stood in loose formations awaiting their orders. Ephiny stepped forward as Xena approached and extended her arm.
"Xena, we came as soon as we could." The Amazon said as she clasped the warrior' arm warmly.
"Thanks Ephiny. We could use the help if we're going to defeat these bastards."
Ephiny's face took on a serious expression. "How goes the war, we've not heard any word."
"Up until yesterday, not good. But the Thracians and Macedonians arrived last night, and it turned the tide in our favor. But without you and the Centaurs, the best we could have hoped for was a stalemate. But now we have a real chance at defeating them."
"Well, I have about 1000 Amazons, and I think Tyldus was able to raise about 1500 Centaurs. I just hope it's enough."
"It'll have to be. And just how did you all get here so fast? I figured that Gabrielle would have to fight with the council for at least two days before convincing them to send troops here."
Ephiny's mouth quirked into a wry grin. "You should have seen her, Xena. The council never stood a chance. She just walked in there like she owned the place, calmly explained to them that if they didn't send help the Horde was going to come after us next, and that there would be no way we could stand alone against them. She was amazing. They were hers and they didn't even know it. Now Xena before you bite my head off, I had to let her come back here. She just wouldn't stay in the village."
"Bite your head off? What for? Who wouldn't stay in the village?" Xena asked, suddenly terrified she already knew the answer.
Ephiny bit her lip, fear washing over her. "Xena, Gabrielle left the village half a day before we did, insisting on returning here. She should have been here by now."
Xena's mind raced. Gabrielle was out there, somewhere, and gods only knew what had happened to her. Fear clenched at her heart, and she fought to control it, now was not the time to rush off in a panic.
"How many were with her when she left?"
"I sent Solari and two members of the Royal Guard with her, in addition to the three men she arrived with." Ephiny answered. "Xena I...I'm sorry, I thought she was well protected... there were 6 with her for Zeus' sake..." Ephiny tried to look anywhere but at Xena, afraid of what she might see there. Anger coursed through the Amazon warrior, anger at herself for ever allowing Gabrielle to leave the village, anger at whomever took her Queen, anger at just not knowing what had happened.
Xena wanted to ride out, find Gabrielle and bring her back to the city, safe and sound, because no matter what else, she had to believe the bard was still alive. Just the thought that Gabrielle may be dead...the warrior couldn't complete the thought. It just wasn't possible, she wouldn't let her leave like this, with so much of her life as yet unwritten. No she's out there...I have to find her. Xena took a moment to calm her breathing, which had become ragged in her chest. Just calm down Xena...you won't do her any good if you fall apart now. Ok...ok...that's it.
The warrior turned to Ephiny, who now raised her head to meet the cold blue eyes before her. She blames me for this...Ephiny thought. And she's right. She asked me to keep the Queen in the village and I didn't do it. If anything has happened to Gabrielle... gods help me, the blood is on my hands. Ephiny could read the look on Xena's face, that look of barely contained anger and frustration. She knew what she had to do.
"I'm coming with you."
A look of surprise washed across Xena's features. The emotions boiling within her screamed that this woman was the one responsible for what had happened... she was to keep Gabrielle in the Amazon village, and yet she had just let her walk out. No, no... I'm just as much to blame as Ephiny. Gods, why did I ever think letting her leave here was a good idea... the Amazon does know me well... ok, I need help to find her, I don't know the Amazon lands Gabrielle would have traveled through as well as Ephiny. And she has people missing too.
"Ok. Let's go." Was the stark reply, no outward emotion, just action as Xena moved at an easy run toward the stables, her fatigue from the day long battle long forgotten. She found Argo, now fully rested and ready for anything. Ephiny secured a mount from one of the stable hands and began to saddle her.
"Xena...I... I'm sorry...I should never have let her leave..." The Amazon trailed off, unsure of what to say.
"Let it go, Ephiny. I'm just as much to blame here as you are... more so in fact. I sent her to you, I should have known she wouldn't stay put." Xena replied as she tightened Argo's saddle and wasted no time climbing aboard. "She's out there. And I'm going to find her."
They exited the stables and were met by Marmax as he strode purposefully toward them. "What's happening? Where are you going?"
"Get out of the way Marmax. Gabrielle is missing, we're going to find her. If we aren't back in a day, we won't be coming back." Xena replied tersely.
"Xena please, think this through. Don't go out there in the darkness, you'll never find anything that way. And what will the men think if you aren't here tomorrow? They will be disheartened if you aren't with them in the battle that's sure to be coming tomorrow."
"Well, Marmax, I guess you'll just have to make due without me. Be a leader Marmax, I can't do it for you." The warrioress spat. "Now we're wasting time, time I don't have. Gabrielle is out there, and she's counting on me to find her. I won't let her down." And with that Xena tightened her knees, urging Argo into a slow canter. The gates had not yet been ful ly barred from the entrance of the Amazons and Centaurs, and she cried out that they be opened again to allow them to pass.
Just the edge of anger in the Warrior Princess' voice urged the men on the gate to quick action, and hastily the gates were pulled open, allowing the two women to slip out and into the darkness beyond. Marmax watched them go, knowing deep in his heart of hearts, that if the Horde had found her, there may be little Xena could do, it may already be too late. He had seen in the healing temple at Thessaly what the warrior and bard meant to each other, and he feared the loss of the storyteller might be too much for Xena's fragile soul to bear.
To be continued in Chapter Nine.
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