CHAPTER 11 (cont)
Xena carefully stretched her aching muscles, as she struggled to put her armor on. She glanced at her reflection in the washbowl to make certain she appeared composed and then quickly gathered up her things and went downstairs. To her surprise, she found Askel waiting for her in the main room.
"Xena," he said with a smile, when he saw her arrive. "Could I talk with you for a moment?"
Shrugging her shoulders, she sat down next to him. "What?"
Askel cleared his throat before speaking. "Well, we were down here for quite some time after you left last night and, after awhile, we got to talking with some of the people about Martakas, trying to find out anything else we could about him." Askel paused for a moment, as a vaguely embarrassed look appeared on his face. "Anyway, a few of the men wanted to know if they could join us. I told them that you were in charge of that and that we couldnt say yes or no to them, but I said Id ask you for them. I did tell them the conditions you gave us and they had no problems with them."
Xena looked at him skeptically. "They want to come along on a bounty hunt that promises to have no reward but could result in their deaths. Do they actually know what theyd be going up against?"
Askel shrugged. "Martakas attacked this village too," he reminded her. "He didnt do much damage but he did kill quite a few people. These men want to help make certain that no one else has to suffer at his hands again. They dont care about glory, they just want to see justice carried out."
Xena sighed and stood up. Looking down at the young man, she shrugged her shoulders indifferently. "Askel, I really dont care if they come along or not. If theyve got horses, theyll agree to my conditions and theyre capable fighters, then they can come. But Im not waiting around on them. Where are they now?"
"I told them to meet me here at dawn and to be ready to leave town if you gave them the okay."
"All right. Im headed to the stables. When they get here, come find me and Ill decide if theyre strong enough fighters or not."
Askel nodded. "Okay. I dont think youll be disappointed though," he said, as he watched the warrior walk silently away.
The next several days passed by peacefully for Xena and her growing band of followers. The five men that had joined them in Cardem were quickly followed by four others, bringing the total number of people traveling with the warrior to 19. With the exception of Askel and Alaini, however, Xena barely interacted with any of them. Askel generally acted as a go between for Xena and the men, since the majority of them were so in awe of the Warrior Princess that they found it hard to approach her and Xena did nothing to encourage them to do so. Alaini tended to serve this role for Xena and the Amazons, despite the fact that Cashta was in fact the leader of that small group. Cashta, however, was nearly as reserved as Xena was, while Alaini tended to be more outgoing and direct, making her more suited for dealing with the warrior on a one to one basis.
Xena had little interest in any of the people who had joined her. She knew their names but that was essentially it and sometimes even that gave her difficulties. She simply didnt care about any of them, as long as they stayed out of her way and left her alone. Each night when they set up camp, she placed her bedroll far away from the others. She rode slightly ahead of everyone else during the day and rarely, if ever, initiated any conversations. She occasionally informed the others of her plans but, more often than not, she simply ignored them. They meant nothing to her and if they all disappeared tomorrow she couldnt have cared less. There was only one thing in her life that mattered and that was finding Martakas and making him pay for what he had done.
"Xena?" she heard a voice call out from behind her.
Turning in her saddle, she saw one of the men moving up to talk to her and she had to struggle for a few seconds to remember his name. "What is it, Elam?" she asked, as she watched him reach her side.
Elam began riding alongside Xena. "Theres a village just over those hills," he said, pointing towards the northeast. "They might have information about Martakas."
Xena looked in the direction he was pointing. She wasnt really familiar with this area but, if Elam said there was a village over those hills, then she believed him. She thought about his suggestion briefly and then nodded. "All right," she agreed. Without another word, Xena changed course and began heading in the direction that Elam had indicated. The men and women behind her followed silently, knowing that any questions directed towards the warrior would simply be ignored.
As they drew closer to the village, they began to hear the sounds of fighting and frantic screams. Xena immediately kicked Argo into a gallop, saying nothing to the others, not particularly caring if they went with her or not. The men and women with her didnt hesitate, however, and immediately followed her, as she quickly closed the remaining distance to the village.
Xena charged into the town with her entire entourage close on her heels. It was a toss-up as to whether the townspeople or the raiders were more surprised by the sudden appearance of a score of armed warriors on horseback, riding through their midst. As Xena and her band began laying into the soldiers, however, the soldiers astonishment quickly changed to fear and then to outright hysteria, as they realized they were no match for the new arrivals. A panicky retreat quickly became the order of the day, and the raiders fled in terror.
Xena moved through the soldiers effortlessly. Her sword flashed in a deadly arc, as she carved a bloody path to their leader, killing a total of four men in the process. She laughed as she saw the fear in his eyes when he realized that he was vastly outclassed. She toyed with him for awhile longer, taunting him while she drew out his horror. Finally he made a desperate lunge for her, hoping to catch her off guard. Xena easily parried his attack and then plunged her sword into his chest, killing him instantly.
Xena looked at the bodies lying on the ground all around her, as she casually wiped the blood from her sword on the body of the man lying at her feet. Several of the raiders had been knocked unconscious by other members of her band and Xena immediately began ordering people to tie up the brigands, before they regained consciousness. Glancing around, she finally caught sight of the men she was searching for. "Elam. Jolas," she called out loudly, ordering them to her side.
"A few of the raiders got away. Take however many others you need: I want those men captured...and take Derassa with you. Shes the best tracker we have. I want every last one of them caught...No one is to be allowed to escape. Do I make myself clear?" she demanded.
The two men nodded and then hurriedly rounded up a group to track down the bandits. Xena watched them leave, a thoughtful expression on her face. Slowly she grinned, before calling another one of the men to her side. "Tristlac. I want you to gather as many people as you need and go find where these raiders left their supplies. They obviously werent carrying everything with them, so they must have set up camp nearby. They must have left their food and other supplies there. I don't think theyll be needing them anymore," she finished with a smirk.
Tristlac nodded and hurried away, excited about having an opportunity to prove himself to the Warrior Princess. The immediate concerns taken care of, Xena looked around the village, noticing that she was on the receiving end of more than a few curious stares. Realizing that she was still holding her sword, she returned it to its scabbard and then began walking towards the few remaining members of her band who were standing guard over the prisoners they had captured. "What are we going to do with them?" one of the men asked her.
"Yes, what are you going to do with them...and with us?" she heard someone ask.
Turning in the direction of the voice, Xena saw an older man approaching her nervously. "Are you the leader of this village?" she asked.
"Yes. Im Vroth. And you are?"
"Im Xena. The answer to your first question is that were going to turn these men over to you. They attacked your village. Do with them as you wish; it makes no difference to me. As for your second question, were not going to do anything with you. We were headed here looking for some information when we saw that you were being attacked, so we came to help out."
When he heard her words, a relieved expression crossed Vroths face. "We thank you for your help. What information were you seeking?"
"Were looking for a warlord by the name of Martakas. Have you heard anything about him?"
The fearful expression reappeared on Vroths face. "Youre allies of Martakas?"
"No. Were tracking him to put a stop to him. We heard he was moving north but thats about all we know."
"Ahh. Well Martakas came through here a while back. He didnt attack our village but he destroyed a few of the surrounding farms...I dont know much more than that, although I do believe he was headed north from here. I will ask around, though. Someone may know more."
Xena nodded. "Fine. If anyone knows anything, then let one of us know," she said, before watching the man hurry away.
"Kolis," she said, as she turned back to the men who were guarding the prisoners.
"Yes Commander?" he asked, as he rushed over to her side.
Xena did a slight double take when she heard the way he had addressed her, before giving a small mental shrug. It certainly made no difference to her what the men called her, as long as they followed her orders and left her alone the rest of the time. "Kolis, find out if anyone was wounded in the attack and needs medical attention and, while youre at it, find out if the villagers need any other help. You might as well make yourselves useful while were waiting for the others to return."
Kolis nodded vigorously, before saluting her and running off, determined to show that he was worthy of her attention.
Xena shook her head as she watched the young man hurry away. She had no intention of wasting much time in this village, but she couldnt leave until she knew that everyone was all right. With any luck at all, Tristlac and the others would find that the raiders were well supplied. It was considerably harder for 20 people to live off the land than it was for two people, and Xena was somewhat concerned about their situation. Of course, she could always send the others on their way if things got too bad, but the glimmer of an idea was beginning to take shape in her mind. It had been unbelievably easy to defeat the raiders who had been attacking this town. Xena knew that both she and the men and women following her, could easily defeat almost any size-matched group of raiders. Martakas army was still considerably larger than their small band, but who knew how many more people would be willing to join her to put a stop to the warlord once and for all.
Xena and the others left the village early the next morning. The supplies from the raiders had been less than she had hoped for but more than she had expected. The villagers, however, more than made up for any deficiencies, as they willingly contributed to ensure that their saviors were supplied with whatever else they needed. When they left the village, three more men accompanied them, bringing to 22 the total number of people traveling with the Warrior Princess.
Xena and her band of warriors moved rapidly north during the next week, as they followed Martakas elusive trail. As hed moved northward, the warlord had behaved as erratically as ever. 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. Xenas 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, who were capable of striking quickly and with deadly force.
The Amazons stayed with Xena and her party but continued to remain a distinct sub-unit. None of them had considered the possibility that Xena would form an army to take care of Martakas and they werent exactly certain how to handle this development. They had agreed, however, that they would follow Xena as long as she didnt interfere with their plans to capture Martakas. The formation of the army had 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 and 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 couldnt 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 wasnt a man in the group who didnt admire her and didnt hope that someday hed do something to warrant her praise.
Xenas 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 didnt believe for one instant that they could actually keep her from killing Martakas, out of respect for Gabrielle, she didnt 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 that 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. Unfortunately, only one of them had been able to find out anything and his information had been vague at best. 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 theyre headed in this direction."
Xena nodded. "Did you see this army? Do you know its size and condition?"
Daylos smiled proudly. "Yes Commander. As soon as I heard what had happened, I tracked and then 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. Id guess theyll 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. Theres one place that would be perfect." Kneeling on the ground, he quickly began drawing a rough map in the dirt. "Theyll have to travel through this canyon," he said. "Its narrow and the sides are high. Once in, theyll 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. Its 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 couldnt help but smile slightly at the hopeful expressions on their faces. "Yes," she said softly. "Well take them. And then well 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.
Xenas 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. Before he had entered, he had looked the canyon over with mild concern. He had now allowed his men to get so bunched up that they had even less room in which to operate than they might otherwise have had. 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 writhed 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. Slowly she rose and moved 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. Xenas 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 Xenas 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 Xenas 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. Ill catch up with 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 couldnt help but smile at the mans 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, after the recent attack, that the sight of her band, with all its warriors, would be a fearsome one for the citizens and she didnt 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 werent 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 didnt 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. When he heard her words, the surprise on his face was apparent. He quickly thanked her once again, before following her to where Tristlac and the others were waiting with the 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 Xenas army moved northward after Martakas once again.
An impassive expression covered Xenas face as she watched her men practicing maneuvers. Including the Amazons, there were now over 45 people in her band and there wasnt a weak link in the entire group. She continued to turn down any and all who didnt meet her criteria but, as they moved through the countryside, there was still a steady stream of new recruits pouring in.
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. Other than Askel. the only men 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 weeks ride to the north of their present location. 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 wasnt a man in the group who wasnt 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 peoples lives.
And it all meant essentially nothing to her. She would trade it all away, without a moments hesitation, if she could just see Gabrielles face, could touch the young womans cheek, could hear Gabrielles 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 wasnt a single man or woman in the group that she considered a friend. They traveled together but that was it. None of them were of any interest to her. She didnt 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 shed once told Gabrielle that she didnt need the bard to survive, that she had only needed her to be complete. It turned out that shed 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. Shed become spoiled. It was no longer enough to her to merely survive, not when her heart had been shattered and her soul had been destroyed.
Xenas 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 and 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. If she didnt act right away, she knew that within the next couple of days, the warlord was sure to start attacking the nearby villages.
Xena shook her head. No, not this time. She wasnt going to be too late again. It was time that she listened to her own advice. Act dont 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. "Were going after them. Well put a stop to the army now, before they have a chance to begin terrorizing this valley. Break camp, were 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 hell 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. "Well attack tomorrow at dawn. I know Sardrasos and I can promise thats when theyll 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 warlords 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. A few of Xenas 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 that 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 didnt 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 mans face remained firmly in place. "Are you Xena?"
"Yes," she replied.
"We dont 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 its not true."
Xena felt herself growing angry at the mans attitude and rude tone but she carefully pushed down her rising ire. "Look, we dont mean you any harm. We just want to buy some supplies...."
The man interrupted her, his voice brusque. "You arent 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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.
Askels 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 hadnt expected the villagers to fall at their feet and worship them as gods, but she certainly hadnt expected to be treated like this either. Xena could feel herself getting angrier as she looked down at the superior expression on the villagers face. Gods she would love to just reach out and wipe that look off of his face and show him just what she thought of 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 wasnt going to waste any more time on them. "Fine, well 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 one last time to stare at the man standing in front of her. She smiled inwardly when she saw him blanch at 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.
Xenas 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 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. They took no prisoners.
Xenas 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 that the peace of mind she had attained over the past couple of years was slowly slipping away from her. She was nearly ready to snap and she knew it. Unfortunately, she wasnt 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 weeks 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 that one of the scouts she had sent on ahead was 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 between them.
As he arrived, the scout saluted Xena briefly before speaking. "Commander, theres a large group of soldiers about five miles ahead of you. I counted 25 men wearing the insignia of Marniat and they look like theyre waiting for someone."
Xena arched an eyebrow as she heard the scouts report. Marniat was the kingdom they were approaching. If the soldiers were five miles ahead of them, then that meant that they were waiting just inside the border of the kingdom. It wasnt hard to guess who they were waiting for but she couldnt fathom why. Even though she had traveled through this area extensively in the past, she had never done anything to the citizens of the 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 men from Marniat, taking only five of her band with her. 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 men, 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 hes just north of Marniat."
A look of disbelief began to appear on the soldiers 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. Were not that stupid, Xena."
Xena shifted slightly in her saddle when she heard the mocking tone of his voice. "Im 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 dont care what your intentions are. If you think for even one instant that we will allow you to bring an army into our kingdom, then you are sadly mistaken," he said firmly.
Xenas 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. Im 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. Youve 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 couldnt 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 Xenas vision and she could feel the blood pounding through her veins. She ached to wipe that arrogant expression from the soldiers face, to let him know the folly of attempting to thwart her. As she began to speak once again, her voice was deadly quiet and filled with barely suppressed rage. "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 thats 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 doesnt 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 more days. 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. She also knew that her men wouldnt 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. "Well go around your kingdom." Without waiting to hear the soldiers 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. "Well be making a small detour. We wont be passing through Marniat. Well head west and then north, and then well cut back east to catch up to Martakas."
"Why arent 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, didnt they?" he demanded. "Who do they think theyre 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. "Were not going to attack them."
Askel stared at her in astonishment. "I cant believe this. Why in Hades not? Theyre 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 then the entire kingdom.
"So youre just going to let them tell you what you can and cannot do?" he asked, with a slight mocking tone to his voice. "Youre willing to let it be known that the Warrior Princess can be pushed around by commoners? Everyone will think youre afraid to take on real soldiers and that youre 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 dont want us around." She shoved him away, fighting the urge to draw her sword and run him through. She looked 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. "Well go the long way. It wont 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 Xenas army. As she finally began to draw close to the warlord once more, there were over 60 people in her band. They had become a battle-ready group that was capable of taking on almost anything. 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, 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 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 didnt 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, heading rapidly towards her.
"Commander, there is a small army to the northwest of us. Roughly 20 men but they didnt 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 wont 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 hadnt left yet. Looking up, Xena saw that the young man appeared to be rather confused. "What is it?" she asked.
"Well, its just that the army is close by...and theyre moving towards Yorithis....," he stammered, growing uncomfortable under Xenas unblinking stare.
"Okay. And?" she asked, not seeing his point.
"And...well theyll attack that village as soon as they reach it...I thought that maybe....," his voice faltered, as he saw the strange look in the warriors eyes.
"Let me see if I have this straight. Were 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 thats what you would want to do," he said lamely.
A look of absolute fury came over the warriors face. "Dont 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? Ive 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. "Im sorry, Commander. Youre right. I should never have tried to suggest...."
Xena cut him off. "Dont 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. This nightmare would then 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 didnt 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.