The Color of Darkness
Chapter 3: Finding The Path to Follow
Gabrielle stared after her, stunned into inaction.
She was mad. Xena was just . . . really mad. At her.
That had to be it. And if that was it, well, theyd get through it.
"Xena!" She took after the warrior, whose long strides had already carried her some distance away. The bard caught up in a few moments, panting to a walk beside Xena. She reached out, to grab her arm
But then the warrior looked at her, and Gabrielle restrained herself, waiting for something, some emotion, to flash through those so-familiar eyes. She waited, and when Xena merely looked at her, continuing to walk all the while, she searched.
"Are you mad? Is that it? Did I . . . hurt you when I went away? Are you trying to punish me for leaving?"
Now it was the others turn to look surprisedthe first real emotion that she'd seen, Gabrielle noticed. "No," the warrior replied evenly. "I am in a hurry."
"To get away from me?"
"No. To catch up to someone else."
"Your student?" Ye gods, that had been her student, who was probably dead? Gabrielle recalled last night's conversation with Shibomuto, in the tavern, before that fateful moment when she'd seen the armband and forgotten pretty much everything. "Didn't Shibomuto tell me something about the other one being . . .." Her voice drifted off. She didn't want to say the word. Maybe it was another culture thing, she suddenly thought. Maybe he'd used the wrong word, and Xena had never been dead, just defeated in battle, only that was like being dead to them . . ..
"Dead?" Xena obviously had no such hesitation, or difficulty with the language. To Gabrielle's ear, however, her inflection had changed, as had her phrasing. Actually, a lot had changed, and Gabrielle didn't have any clue where it began or why it had happened. Harikuyo? What was all that about? This was Xena in front of her.
"He is quite likely dead," Xena finished.
"If you don't think he's alive, what's the rush?" That came out sounding badly, she realised, but what she really wanted to ask was, why don't you want to be near me, Xena? Why are you walking away, when I've risked so much of myself in coming back to you with an open heart? When I have so much I want to tell you, to show you, to share with you?
Why do you want to walk away, when together is the only way to get through this?
"Because it's not him I'm looking for," the warrior replied as she reached her horse, a dark bay stallion that snorted at Gabrielle. "Forgive me, Gabrielle. I must leave."
"Wait!" Now the bard reached out, touched the silk-clad arm. Underneath her fingers, she felt the rock-solid lines of Xena: harder than before, stronger. Thinner, too. She looked down at her, and Gabrielle pulled her hand back sheepishly, almost as though shed done something wrong.
But that couldnt be. Why would she feel that way?
There was only a curious expression on the warrior's face. She'd alwaysthat is, she'd formerlyhad such a mobile face, unless of course she was angry . . ..
Was that it, despite her claims? Was she angry? Or possessed by this Harikuyo soul?
"When will you be back?" Gabrielle asked, having searched for any question to fill in the silence.
Xena seemed to pause before answering. "I do not know if I will come back this way."
"You're leaving? You're just going to leave . . . and not come back?" Gabrielle was horrified, and didn't bother to restrain her feelings. "What about your mother, Xena? What about Toris?"
For a moment, something could have flashed through those brilliant eyesbut Gabrielle wouldn't have staked her life on it. Xena took the reins of her horse from her student and looked back at the bard. "They should have explanations, I know. I'm afraid that they may never truly understand . . . which is my responsibility. Will you take some of that responsibility for me, Gabrielle? To make sure that they know that I . . . love them?"
"Love?" Okay, that was it. Gabrielle was fighting on home turf now, and she was willing to fight angrily with the only weapon she would ever willingly wield again. Nevermind the hurt to her for the moment, Gabrielle couldn't believe what Xena would do to her own family. "You don't love them, Xena. Not when you treat them like this. You left them, without any explanation, and now that you're so closethe closest you've been in years, apparently, though how would I know, right?and you won't even take the time out to go see them? I know what love is, Xena. It's a great and whole thing. I've lived in it for the past seven years, I've taught it, I've shared it. I know love. This isn't it."
"Then your idea of love must be somewhat limited," Xena replied, and swung up onto the horse. "Or perhaps you love because you think you should, and not because you can not help the storm of emotion."
Gabrielle stood there, stunned. Why did Xena say that as though it was a bad thing? Storm of emotion? Who was sitting here, arguing? Who felt strongly enough to not bother hiding how, and what, she felt?
Shibo said nothing, looking politely away.
Gabrielle didnt want to get drawn into an argument on semantics. Nothing mattered here but the real issue, and that she had absolutely no doubts about. "I care, Xena," she said quietly.
"I know," the other replied, just as quietly. "Which is why I ask this of you." Xena looked down at her. "I can only ask that you do it for me, Gabrielle. Or perhaps for the person who I was, once."
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said shakily. A part of her mind was still surprised she could stand. Xena had always had a way with words, but she'd never been so . . . cruel. Not to her, anyway, not without good reason. And not so . . . casually. The words had been a crushing blow, had hurt, more than physically. Gabrielle suddenly remembered a moment over a decade ago, when she'd walked into a jail in which Xena had been willingly trapped, and she'd seen Xena just take out several guards bare-handed and turn to her--
And strike her.
"I know," and now Xenas voice was sympathetic. When Gabrielle looked up, she was struck by the warrior's face. For a moment, she could have believed that Xena, too, thought of that memory. But the warrior continued, her voice soft. "I do not expect you to, either, for I have not explained it. I am sorry, but I don't have that luxury now." She tightened her legs around the horse, and it began to move off. She looked back once. "I am sorry, Gabrielle."
The bard watched her ride away, her thoughts numb. Xena was leaving her.
This was not how she'd imagined it. In all those scenes she'd replayed in her head, on the way home, alone after so long, she'd never imagined it coming out this way.
Maybe, a little voice in her mind said, it would have been better if you'd thought she was dead.
Gabrielle's head jerked back unconsciously, repulsed at her own thoughts. "No!" she said aloud, startling a passing dog, which gave her a wide berth. No, she repeated silently to herself. You can't wish that thought on anyone.
What was happening to her? With Eli, she'd been a prophet, a companion of the Avatar. On her own, shed been a one-woman force of friendship. She'd been a living message of love, and hope, and even when times had been toughand there had been many of thoseshe had known a sense of completeness, of happiness, because she'd known the Truth. She was doing the right thing, no matter how many people had laughed at her, or hurt her.
Love was the way.
She stared after the black-clad warriors, strangers both, or so it seemed at this distance. From the back, they could have been the same: foreigners.
Xena had always been remote, sometimes even distant, but never out of reach. Not in all the time that the bard had known her.
Love, Gabrielle reminded herself. Love was the way. Love would bring her friend back.
"You were born to this country, then."
They'd lapsed back into their native tongue. Harikuyo listened to herself speak and gave herself a mental nod. She did speak it like a native, with proper inflection and carefully formal phrasing. She certainly spoke it as a kikokushijo would: like one who should have been born to the country. Or rather, a kikokushijo would speak it as she did, because she was the only lost child that she knew of, in her time, who had found her way to the place she belonged.
"I had wondered where you had learned this foreign tongue. I know there are many in Edo who speak different languages, but they are mostly familiar with those countries closer to home."
"Not to mention the similarity of features?"
He looked at her in astonishment. "I . . . do not often remember that you do not resemble us."
She shot him an amused glance as her horse picked its way on the path, which had begun to slope upward. "Perhaps you would find it enlightening to ask more questions, Shibomuto, instead of merely wondering."
His black eyes twinkled back at her. "I must have something to amuse me these long hours, other than the language lessons you so patiently give me."
She bowed slightly over her pommel, appreciating the response. Shibo was a good student, and an even better traveling companion. The latter was greatly appreciated, as it could only make the experience, such as it was, more enjoyable. She had not traveled in some time, having spent the past few years in the Temple, leaving only to wander around Edo. The country itself was small enough that she had gone the length and breadth several times in just the span of two years, but it had not been that which had kept her from going further.
"You never planned to return."
"No," she replied, "I never planned. If it happened, so it would be."
"You would seem to embody our tenets perfectly, Harikuyo-san."
She'd caught that hesitant look. "I hear a question in that statement."
"At which point," he said slowly, "should we take control of our destiny? When should we make an effort to choose?"
She was surprised enough to twist in her saddle. "What makes you think the teachings tell us we should not?"
"If we choose to move with the water, we cannot swim against the current."
"If you knew how to swim, Shibo, you would know that the ocean has many currents, none of which travel exactly the same path. The answer lies not in fighting the current you do not wish to be moved by, but rather by choosing the current which moves in the way you wish to go."
"You could have chosen not to return."
He conceded her point with a short nod. She'd always had a choice, but the person that she was could not have accepted the outcome of having said no.
"It is not the place which I have no wish to return to, Shibomuto."
"Is it the person? The warrior named Xena?"
"No. She has gone beyond my reach. There is nothing to fear from her." Yes, fear was the right word. For if she had still been Xena, she could never have done what she must do.
And she would never have been able to cause Gabrielle such pain.
"Then?" Shibomuto asked.
"It is the time."
"I do not understand."
She motioned to the path behind them. "I will walk down that road again, my friend, in another lifetime if not in this one. But not as the person who I am now. And never as the person I once was. I was born to this country; I once accepted it, as natives do. Now, I do not. I would have liked the time to understand it as a foreigner, but I do not have that luxury, nor do I believe I will have that chance."
They rode a while in silence. Harikuyo noted how the land was becoming rockier. The path wound upward, and her horse's shoulders dampened with sweat. She patted him on the crest with one hand. He was a good horse, an excellent fighter. No relation of Argo, who had found her peace some months before she'd come to Edo. But a good horse all the same, her Kitsunami.
"There is always the chance they have not found the Dragon," Shibomuto said finally. "That no one has, and that it remains hidden."
"They are not the only ones who could. And, in the end, you and I both know that it will be found. No matter what we do, where we put it, it will be found. That is the way of such things."
He looked thoughtful a while, and then, "If they have found it, they may not understand how to Call the Dragon. And if they do succeed, they will die. We have that, at least."
"And how many will die, along with them?"
"Not everyone is evil, with death in their minds and blood on their hands."
"Not everyone must be, in order for bad things to happen." She crossed her wrists over her pommel and considered the countryside. "But that is neither here nor there, for our goal is not to change Fate, but rather to delay it."
"You sound as though you do not believe that those who dedicate their lives to the Temple will keep the Dragon far from the reach of men."
"It is men who dwell in the Temple, Shibo; men who walk in and out of those walls every day." She shook her head. "It will be kept hidden for a while, certainly. Such things are never forgotten, however, and one day, someone will remember. Much as someone has done, in this time."
"But it will be different in the future, for anyone who tries will have all those of the Temple to conquer before they reach the Dragon."
She smiled. "Someone who has come so far, for so much, will not give up so quickly."
"Hundreds, if not thousands, would die in this folly."
"And if someone had those troops, they might consider that to be their purpose." She reined in Kitsuname, waiting for Shibo to draw even beside her. "As a bushido warrior from Edo, you do not understand this way, for you have never seen it. I have, my friend. A successful warlord must not consider his troops to be men, with thoughts and feelings, but rather as weapons, with uses and effectiveness. I know you well, Shibomuto, and you would not choose to break a serviceable sword, for that would waste it needlessly. But if doing so would give you another, better edge, would you not break the sword yourself?"
"I understand that there are warlords out there who would be so ruthless--"
"No," she interrupted him, surprising them both with that rare occasion, "you accept. You do not understand."
"And you understand?" He wasn't challenging her; merely asking.
"I believe that the way of the warriorwhat we know as bushidois honourable. The way of the warlord, however, is often not. There are those who seek to conquer, and in doing so, destroy, not understanding the difference."
He nodded slowly. "You ask me if we save lives today, only to sacrifice them tomorrow. Hai," he said softly, "I understand now."
"And how would you reply, were I to ask you to choose between those lives?"
"As the child which I am, undoubtedly, for I had hoped for the simplest of futures, as a child would. That we would save those of today, and in doing so, save all in tomorrow."
"To hope is not childish."
"What do you hope for, Harikuyo-san?"
He had taken her by surprise that time, but she gave it as much thought as a koan from an Elder, and she found her answer easily. "To be loved."
His face twisted up; undoubtedly he was thinking of the scene he had so recently witnessed in which the word had been used often. "I do not understand. You are loved, sensei; you are even revered."
"Reverence puts love beyond my reach."
"Is reverence not the same thing as love, only pure and selfless?"
"If it is selfless, is it love? For can there be love without self?" She didnt wait for him to answer. "Purity, in itself, is mere fact. It is when you mix with it with feeling that you are gifted with emotion, Shibomuto."
"Is this a koan, a puzzle for me, to twist my thoughts so thinly that I see through them, to clear understanding?"
"No," she replied, her senses trained on the path behind them, "it's for me to understand, before it's too late to become more than myself."
She saw them, glimpses of shadows through the trees, and urged her horse forward. It responded willingly enough, which was good, because that meant it had been worth what she'd paid.
She wasn't going to be left behind.
Okay, she admitted to herself, so she still had a few issues with that topic. Funny how years of traipsing around with Eli, who had never suggested that she shouldn't be there, hadn't been enough to overcome the sensation she got when she watched Xena ride away.
Left behind. Again.
And it wasn't as though Xena had done it all that often, especially towards the end. She'd urged Gabrielle to leave her, or to stay tucked away in some village, but she'd never actually left the bard behind. And, Gabrielle grudgingly admitted, there were a few times that Xena had left her behind when the bard should have stayed put. As she'd usually found out, when she'd get caught and Xena would come riding to the rescue. Much to her chagrin.
She had a feeling that this Xenabecause she wanted to think of her as Xena, and not this Harikuyo personwouldn't be that quick to rescue her.
Not that she was the same old Gabrielle, either. She bit her lip. The warrior might have changed. But so had the bard.
And she wasn't going to settle for what she'd been given.
Gabrielle made a turn in the path, and jerked back on her reins. The small chestnut mare stopped suddenly, nearly sitting down on her hocks, and Gabrielle tightened her legs around the horse and kept her seat with little effort.
The two warriors had turned their horses to face her and merely watched. Xena's eyebrows rose, just slightly, but Gabrielle saw it. "I see you've become a good rider."
"I've had time to become a lot of things."
She merely nodded. "Thats a nice horse."
"Glad you think so. You know horses better than I do."
"I take it that she is a recent purchase?"
"I've decided to name her Torc. That's what she was, an hour ago." She patted the mare, thinking of the golden necklace. Eli had given it to her, when they'd passed through Erin; a grateful man had given it in return for Eli's success in curing his daughter's deadly illness, despite both their assurances that they did it for love, not payment. He had insisted, telling them he gave it through love, and that it had been his wife's, dead many years. Eli had given it to Gabrielle, telling her that it matched her hair. She'd kept it, intending to use it as an emergency resource should they ever really need it. Which hadn't happened. Eli might have angered many people, but more loved him, and in the end, the two of them had managed. Gabrielle had enjoyed the experience. It was a change to travel with someone who avoided battles at all cost, rather than used those fights as a way of making peace. She understood the tactic of battling for the sake of stopping a fight, but she could no longer accept it. The times shed been on her own, shed usually managed to keep people from fighting, which had proved its own reward.
She didn't regret the loss of the torc. Getting from here to there quickly classified as an emergency, so she'd gone to the livestock man, walked into the pen, and chosen the horse who'd come to her, rather than edged around her. The saddle was used, but was of excellent quality, and better yet, fit the small mare perfectly. The bridle was somewhat more worn, but was fitted enough not to sag around the delicate grey muzzle.
Even after half an hour of hard riding, the mare looked alert, her eyes bright, her ears pricked forward. Now, while they were stopped, she bent her neck to whuffle at Gabrielle's foot in the stirrup.
You could never go wrong if you chose love. Right?
"I'm going with you," she announced.
Shibomuto looked at Xena, who didn't seem surprised. She didn't try to talk Gabrielle out of it, either.
"Do you have what you need?" was the only question she got.
"I was traveling light," the bard replied. The pack strapped to the saddle, some extra food the horse trader had thrown in, and her.
"Then we should move on." Xena clucked to her horse, which turned and took the lead. "You will like traveling with Gabrielle, Shibo. She has many stories, and if she still tells them, tells them well."
"I've got a lot about Xena's adventures," she told the young man pointedly, keeping Xena well within her peripheral vision. "Practically hundreds."
"They will be interesting to hear," he said politely. "And, in turn, perhaps I will be allowed to tell you some of Harikuyo-san."
Xena hadn't made any movements or gestures to negate the Xena-fest being plotted right behind her back. Gabrielle felt as though a bit of her world had dropped away.
She'd just started, she assured herself; of course it would look bleak. That was more or less the trademark of just causes. She oughta know about just causes.
The two black-clad warriors fell into line; the bard had little choice but to follow them or stay behind. She watched their backs, straight and tall in the sun. They were eerily alike, not in build, but in the aura they gave off.
She's really not Xena anymore, Gabrielle thought. She really is . . . a stranger. Someone named Harikuyo, with a history of her own. Xenathe one known as Xenawas gone.
Her hands clenched on the reins, causing Torc to snort before stepping onward. Gabrielle didn't pay much attention, her eyes on the warrior woman ahead. No. She couldn't give her up, Xena or no. Not after so much time, after so much that they'd shared. Friendship. Laughter.
The deep, soul-searching, breath-stealing, burning-bodies love. The kind that made your teeth ache with the pleasure that was oh-so-close to pain. Love.
It was tragically ironic that she had returned to tell Xena about the things she'd learned; the Truth that Eli had taught her, the way shed learned to practise it with others. She had set out to learn about love, and sharing it; she had returned because her journey would have no end until she found the other half of her heart.
Xena. Always, and would ever be, no matter how dark the hunger or deep the despair. Gabrielle had taught others that love would break the cycle of violence, would bring happiness, joy, friendship, laughter.
Like she'd had with Xena.
They'd said the words, a time or two. Gabrielle had said it again, on the cross. She just hadn't understood the responsibility of saying it. She had seen it as a gift, something she offered up to her friend. She hadn't truly realised the promise that she was making.
To return home. Home to her heart, where it could be whole.
But she couldn't find the woman who had been Xena in the one who was now Mu Harikuyo; something had happened that had shut Xena away, forgetting or ignoring her own promise to the bard. Gabrielle knew that she wouldn't reach that part of Xena easily, at least not without digging. Trying. And, in the process, hurting at least one of them. Herself.
And she knew she was afraid of what she would find if she succeeded.
Chapter 4: Rocky Roads
Shibo sat patiently while his horse navigated a particularly hazardous stretch of path, shifting his balance according to its needs. The sharp incline was becoming a strain for the poor creature; soon he would get off and walk alongside. The small group did not have far to go. Only a few more hours would take them over this ridge and back down, into the next valley, where they would set up camp. As it was, they had made good time over the rough ground, considering they were several months behind his friend.
He took a long slow look around. It was the third such valley they had traveled, on the second day since they'd left that last village. They had encountered no towns, just a few huts here and there, where lone families regarded them with suspicion and took care to have shepherd's crooks within their reach. Harikuyo had made no move towards stopping, however, and he did not mind. He had seen enough of the foreign people. He was beginning to yearn for the cool green valleys of home, the cherry trees, the graceful willows. There was beauty here, yes, but his eye was better pleased by the elaborate gardens of Edo, the sand gardens of the Temple.
For a moment his eye lingered on Harikuyo, and he wondered where she would prefer to be at this moment. He had never thought of her as a gaijin, no one at the Temple had, in truth. That she was different in face and feature meant very little to all those who knew her. She had learned their language as one bred for it, and come to the Temple as one born to it. Or so the Elders had told him, for he was not there that day; his coming was some months later.
He had been young, but she had chosen him as her student, much like she'd chosen Kohi. Shibomuto had been aware of the fact that she was treated differently, and by default, so were her students. She was not bound by conventions of gender or age; indeed, she often seemed ageless, and Shibo had never heard of her taking a lover. She was simply Mu Harikuyo. The name itself had given him pause, with its many meanings. He had been puzzled but had never asked. At some point in his training, he had understood that he did not need to know. Harikuyo-san did as she felt right, and no one ever questioned either her sense of honour or her bravery. If she did not do as the others did, it did not matter. When she was needed, she was there, and what needed to be done, she did.
She had been his sensei for over five years, time in which he had grown, changed both physically and mentally. She had taught him how to cope with those changes, how to move with the same balance and agility as he had with his child's body. He was considered a warrior now, not because he had left the Temple, not because he had just recently become a man in body, but because Harikuyo-san had indicated he was prepared to take on a warrior's duties. By allowing him to volunteer, then asking him to accompany her, she had in effect told the Temple that he was ready for that heavy mantle. Shibo was not unaware of the consequences of that act. Younger by far than his peers, he was nevertheless accepted. If Harikuyo-san had been the one to train him, and then test him, the others, even the Elders, would accept his status.
She had made him who he was. Shibo saw, in small flashes, that she had also had a hand in making the storyteller into the woman she was today.
There was much pain there, he thought. Gabrielle was hurt, badly hurt, by the way her friend had been treating her. For the past two days, his sensei had been nearly silent, speaking only when spoken to. Shibo had traveled a long way with her, and understood that this was how she traveled, indeed she had often been like that at the Temple. He did not mind the fact that she often became immersed in her inner thoughts, for he understood the need. She risked more than he, in this journey, and he would have been cruelly selfish in not allowing her that time alone. He also knew that, if he spoke, she would turn her attention to him unselfishly.
Gabrielle either did not know that, or was so stunned by the change in the woman that she did not dare try. Thus she had passed her time speaking mainly with Shibo, but he had noticed the surreptitious way she had looked at Harikuyo. At first, it was as though Gabrielle were waiting for something; her look was expectant, hopeful. Now, however . . ..
Having not known the person named Xena, Shibo could not tell how great was the difference between the two women, Xena and Harikuyo. Knowing the latter, however, he understood that his sensei was not being specifically cruel to the bard, but rather was concentrating on other, more important things.
And yet it seemed strange. There were moments in her brief conversations with the bard when Harikuyo paused, and then said something that seemed so harsh in its starkness, even Shibo wondered at it. If they had truly shared the bonds of friendship, Shibo could well understand why the fair-haired one would wince back with pain, and not dare speak for many moments after.
Part of it was, he knew, the manner in which they carried themselves. Those who lived in the Temple were even more reserved than the citizens of Edo: they had to be, having been honed in the skills of death and pain. Bushido taught a warrior great things, but at great cost. It was incredibly contradictory to those who had not entered the Temple, but the followers of bushido learned the skills and the way over many years, and, near the end, understood that to use them was unnecessary. It was the journey that was important, not the goal.
But still he was puzzled by the way Harikuyo treated the other woman. He felt it even in her manner of silence. The sensei was not only reserved, she was distant. It was as though she did not care about the impact of her words on the Greek woman. Knowing his master, he could not accept that Harikuyo would do this unconsciously, for in all the time he had known her, she had been the definition of self-aware. And yet, understanding that, neither would he accept her behaviour as vengeful, for she was not that sort of person. It was possible that at one point, she could have been, but she was not now. He would stake his very life on that belief.
The only conclusion that he drew, therefore, was that Harikuyo had a purpose in treating Xena's friend so, and that he, who was not privy to her thoughts, was not aware of that purpose. His lack of understanding meant that he would do nothing to interfere, and in doing so, take some burden of responsibility should he be proved wrong. In which case, he knew he would undertake some action to help balance what he had witnessed. If he could, for that was the future, and he had other duties to complete.
For now he would wait, and he hoped he would be allowed to understand when and if Harikuyo's purpose was revealed. He glanced at the bard, who held herself stiffly, angrily, in the saddle. When not angry, she was an excellent traveling companion, and her way with words not only entertained him, but also taught him much of her language and her understanding of life. She was a loyal friend, too, not willing to give up at the first sign of failure, though that same sense of loss ruled her thoughts. He could tell by the way she looked at Harikuyo, as though hoping to find her lost friend.
He did not know if it would have better served her to believe her friend dead in body, as she was in spirit. Nor could he say which would have been more comfort to her, and that saddened him. She certainly deserved some explanations, and it was a pity that he could do nothing to help her. Could not, and would not; he did not have the understanding that Gabrielle would need to make the picture whole, for he was not his sensei. Only Harikuyo had those answers, and for her own reasons, she did not explain.
He wanted to understand, but he would wait patiently. Shibo glanced again at the stiff line of Gabrielle's back. He only hoped she would still be around to witness that moment of revelation, as well.
Harikuyo paused at the hillcrest, holding Kitsuname in place with the lightest pressure of her calves. Shibomuto reined his horse in beside her, and Gabrielle moved up alongside to flank her in moments.
She nodded towards the black ring that writhed through the blue sky. Gabrielle followed her gaze.
So, Harikuyo thought, she still speaks to me, despite the obstacles placed between us. Good. "Yes."
"Doesnt look good."
"No," Harikuyo replied, "I dont imagine it will." Knowledge settled itself into her thoughts, the faint threads of suspicion hardening into belief. Her student was, as she suspected, dead. His body would undoubtedly have been left mangled, or desecrated; vultures would not still be circling if he had died some time ago. No. He had held out, and they had tortured him, and now he was dead to her.
This she could understand, even accept.
But what of the Dragon? Had he known where it was hidden? Had he found it and been carrying it when overcome? Had he never known, and been killed for having told the truth: that he knew nothing?
Shibo was staring at the circle in the sky; she could read similar thoughts in his expression. When he looked over at her, she saw that he was ready to go on. "Gabrielle?"
The bard knew what she was asking. "Lets go."
Harikuyo pressed Kitsuname forward, momentarily distracted with thoughts of the bard. Gabrielle had known. For one moment, in the moment that she had forgotten those things which separated them, the person Gabrielle had become had been in tune with the person who had been Xena, and who was now Harikuyo.
There was proved enough remnants of love, and now there was the added ability of subconscious communication and understanding. Both had been taken for granted between Xena and Gabrielle.
But she was Harikuyo now, and she would not go back.
She took the lead so that her companions would not see the small smile on her lips. There was hope for her.
If what she suspected was true. Her smile faded. Now all that remained, in what precious few moments were left, was to hurt Gabrielle enough so that when the time came, the bard would do what Harikuyo could not.
There were so many things that she did not want to do, that she must.
She intentionally blanked her mind; there was nothing to be gained by chasing the questions around her head. She had thought long and hard, in the time given her. She had studied all she could, considered each possibility that presented itself. This was the only way, and if she did not care for it, what recourse did she have? What did it matter to the world that she preferred another way? She would still do what she must.
Perhaps that will be my epitaph, she thought. The words that are written on the scrolls and burned, so that the gods may read them. 'She did what she had to do.' There is worse that may be said of me.
Shibo reined in his horse and looked back at her. "Do you smell it?"
"Yes," she said shortly. She had noticed it several moments before, but had ignored it. She'd have to, if she were going to do what she had come for.
"What are youoh." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Ugh. I don't want to know what that is, do I?"
"I think we shall find out regardless," Harikuyo said, and so they did, a few moments later.
"The scarf tied to the forelock," Shibo commented, staring down at the ruin of the carcass.
"I see it," Harikuyo replied. It was a black silk scarf, with some characters embroidered upon one visible corner. It was muddied, it was torn, but it was from Edo.
"Is that his?" Gabrielle asked quietly, looking at her.
"I believe it is," she said evenly. "He would have known they were behind him, and knew that he must leave some sort of sign. He would also have known that professional soldiers would take the saddle and bridle, but not bother with a piece of cloth. They would overlook it as decoration, possibly not understanding its importance. Or not caring."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, including both Shibo and Harikuyo. "I know what this means, and I'm really sorry. He was a student and a friend, and must have meant a lot to both of you."
Harikuyo studied the carcass. It was several weeks old, for the flies no longer buzzed around. The skin had dried in the hot summer sun, creasing like leather where the gases had bloated the innards, stretching over the bones like a tent. The soft parts of the body had been eaten out, though, as she could tell from the dark empty spaces within the shiny dried leather. The occasional insect still crawled in and out of the holes.
"Let's go," she said after a moment.
She saw something up ahead. A strangely shaped tree, which bore rotten fruit. The lines, the silhouette, were familiar to her, but she said nothing, merely pointed it out to the others.
None of them spoke until they reached the crucifix. Harikuyo felt Gabrielle's eyes dart towards her.
"It doesn't look as though they were very inventive," she said mildly, and felt more than saw the bard relax. Harikuyo understood why; Gabrielle had, at least in the past, a tendency to associate Xena's worst memories with crucifixes. Considering their last few months together, Harikuyo wasn't surprised that Gabrielle had carried that burden with her.
It was comforting to see the proof of Gabrielle's concern. Not for the bard's reasons, of course, for she'd been free of those fears a long time. She looked up at him without a tremor, studying the details with objective eyes.
He'd been dead several days already.
Shibomuto was looking up at the remains with a calm expression on his face. Harikuyo, having had the raising of him, saw the setting of his muscles, the soothing of the tensions. Now he knew for certain, and later he would mourn. Kiho would understand; the two had been best friends, but Shibo was concerned with his task. Her student would grieve for his friend later, when he had luxury of time and privacy. She, on the other hand, had no real need; she had known.
"They were angry," Shibo commented.
Harikuyo nodded to herself. So they had been, otherwise they would not have done quite so much damage to him, even after he'd died.
"Is that good or bad?" Gabrielle's voice was tremulous.
"Good," Harikuyo replied. "It tells us two important things: he knew where the Dragon was, and they did not discover the knowledge from him."
"You can tell all that from the fact that he's in at least six different pieces up there?" Gabrielle risked another look upward and gulped before turning away. "How many new languages have you learned, Xena?"
Harikuyo turned Kitsuname back on the path. "They would not have spent so much time torturing him if they did not believe he knew where the Dragon was hidden. Dimenor does not want to waste more time than necessary. They would have killed him long ago if they suspected that he did not know. As for the other, he did not tell them because he would not. He certainly had the Dragon with him, for he did not flee into villages, where he could take shelter, but into the mountains, where there would be fewer innocents should the Dragon be unleashed. I knew him. He would have died instead. And he did." She paused. "The fact that they took out their anger on a dead body just supports my understanding of events."
"Bully for you," Gabrielle said. "But now we're back to the beginning. We don't know where this Dragon is. It looks like the bad guys don't know, either, and theyve had time to comb the area thoroughly. Can we just call it a draw and head home?"
"We cannot leave the Dragon here." Shibo frowned. "Else we risk this happening again in just a few years."
Harikuyo said nothing, too busy with her thoughts.
Kohito would not have had time to hide it well, she knew. The horse had been killed, and the scout camp had been set up not too far from the rotting carcass. Therefore, he had only moments before they'd swept down and taken him. Moments in which to tie the scarf and hide the Dragon. He had left her a message. Telling her where he had been. Somewhere there was a message telling her where the Dragon would be hidden.
No, because the soldiers would have found it. Kiho's message was her knowledge of him. And his dying faith in her.
She closed her eyes and brought back the feel of him. His fear, hidden so well, when he had first found her on Temple property. His surprise when she had not only fought him with a sword, which was rarely used in Edo, but bested him handily. The look in his eyes the day the Elders had made her a kikokushijo, and the one known as Xena had died.
The curve of his back when he had bent before her, offering himself as her first student. The way he had taught her the language, and the way she had taught him hers.
The way they had sat together, under the rain of cherry blossoms, and he had told her he would seek out the Dragon. They had looked at one another then, and she had told him he would die, and he had replied that he could do no less than she.
Kiho. I have come, as you knew I would.
Harikuyo opened her eyes and looked around. The world seemed brighter, stranger, the lines of trees and mountains foreign and new. She saw it through him.
He would have known that they would search the area in which he'd been captured. Therefore he would hide it someplace where they would not think to look. Someplace, she thought, where they would not want to look.
When she rounded the path and saw the scene again, the answer floated up into her conscious mind, and she nearly smiled. After she pulled Kitsuname to a halt, she dismounted and drew her sword in one fluid movement.
Gabrielle and Shibomuto had remained on their horses. The bard was frowning and her student watched her intently.
She walked up to the horse, reversed her grip on her sword, and thrust the point through the tanned leather. A black cloud of flies swarmed up. She ignored them and began to saw at the brittle bones.
The structure collapsed in moments. Using the point of her sword, she moved the remains about, breaking any bone that she could not move. She was past the rib cage in an eyeblink.
I knew you too well, she thought, and I will miss you.
She bent down and picked up the Dragon.
Shibomuto stared at the weapon held in his sensei's hand. "You found it so quickly." Again they spoke in their own language, and the sounds blended with the crystal sounds of water and made him think of home.
"I knew how to think like a warrior of Edo," she replied, scrubbing the last bit of dried gore from the intricate workings of the Dragon. Shibo had known it looked like a mere sword, but still he had trouble comprehending the breadth of its power. It seemed innocuous in and of itself, but when he looked at it from the corner of his eye, he saw . . . shadows. Shapes. It troubled him greatly, and he was glad that Harikuyo had been the one to hold it since they had left the scouts' mountain lair.
She doused the sword one last time, then pulled it from the creek. "He killed and gutted his own horse, hid the Dragon within the wound, and ran. After the scouts had run him down, each undoubtedly assumed that another had killed the horse in the confusion of finding him." She smiled. "It was perhaps his final joke that they would be within sight of the Dragon for weeks, and not know how close they truly were."
"He was famous for his jokes."
"Hai," she said, "I know."
He flushed. Of course she would know. How foolish of him.
He changed the topic. "It is beautiful."
"Yes." She sighted down the blade. "Good balance."
Shibo tried to remember all that he'd read about the Dragon, and wondered at its practicality. Had the sword ever really been meant to be held? "The blade is the Talon, the stone is the Heart, and the whole is the Dragon?"
"So we have learned." She frowned at the Heart. "This does not seem like stone, does it? It looks like a jewel. Look, it has facets."
He looked at it, indeed, he could see through it. "I have never seen a stone or a jewel so clear. Could it be glass?"
She tapped it experimentally; he winced at the thought of how casually she handled the most powerful weapon in the world.
When he looked at her again, she was smiling at him knowingly. "It is not the greatest weapon until we know how it works," she told him. "Until then it is a mere sword, which both you and I understand."
"Only because you have taught me kendo, the way of the sword." He fell silent, something within him wondering . . .. "I could believe that you knew, so long ago, that this time would come, and I would benefit from knowledge of the sword."
"I merely taught you what I knew."
"I hope I will not have to use what I have learned."
She shot him an intense look, and he shrank from it, guilty. "Hai," he confessed softly, his shame burning him from the inside, "I am afraid of it."
"It? Or yourself?"
He thought about it as they walked the path back to their temporary camp. "I am afraid of not being equal to the task of keeping it from the hands that would unleash it."
"That is good," she replied. "That means you have not allowed the repetition of what we teach to go to your head and your hand. It means you are thinking." She smiled wryly as they entered the camp; Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen.
Was the bard off, recovering from the sight of the dead man? Shibo doubted it. Gabrielle was no fair flower. From the stories she had told him, it was obvious that she had become used to the sight of death many years ago.
It could be that she was merely taking the time to remember the dead man with love. She had told him of this practise, to sit and think awhile on the meaning of life and death, and one's journey in between. Or, he thought, looking at his sensei's calm face, Gabrielle could have chosen to rethink her course of action in travelling with the warriors from Edo. In staying to suffer the pain which had become a daily companion.
If she chose that path, she would return to say goodbye. Of that he was sure. She had a sense of honour similar to the warriors of bushido. He was struck by the irony, for in that case, Gabrielle's sense of honour was very similar to Harikuyo's.
As he looked around, Harikuyo sank down into a seiza position and took up a cloth, beginning the task of polishing the Dragon. "Remember, Shibomuto, that being a warrior begins with the heart."
He flushed as he sat beside her, remembering their conversation and turning his attention towards the feelings that had lurked within his heart. "Sometimes I think I am too young to have come with you," he said slowly. "That you did not choose wisely." The moment he said the words, he knew he should not have, and wished he could take them back.
Her hands had stilled, and now she stared at him. "Do you question my choice?"
"No, sensei!" He looked down at his folded hands, suddenly wishing that he had never begun this course of questioning. Now he remembered why he didn't ask certain questions; even after so many years, he never knew when he would say something that he would regret. She seemed to have a talent for listening, and he feared that sometimes, he said more than he ought. In his first years in the Temple, he had been afraid that if he told her too much, she would realise that he was not fit to be a true warrior, and send him away. In recent times he had not felt so unworthy, but she still had the ability to question him and find out those things he had been hiding even from himself. Above all, he knew, he ached to be worthy of her, for he might be the only remnant of her existence. "I question only my abilities."
"Not even that, for you know what you are capable of." She laid the Dragon in her lap and folded her arms across it. "You question your age, which is completely irrelevant to what you can do."
"But what if I should fail in a time of need? What if my fear were to grow?" What if he were to die, and there would be no one left to honour her, and burn papers before the gods?
"Would it matter? You only fail when your fear stops you from doing what you must." She gave him a thin smile. "There is no shame in fear, Shibomuto."
"But we should not be afraid."
"Be, no. But feel? We are allowed to feel, my friend. You may think that the Temple Elders are placid, even-tempered men, but that does not mean that they do not feel anger, or pain, or love. It would be unhealthy not to feel, for then you would not be whole."
"But what is the secret to controlling it? For if I am to master the feelings which quicken my heart, I have so far to go."
"Who speaks of control? As I said, you must feel, not be. We live through day and night, but does our world change with the setting of the sun? It is still the same tree which shaded you from the sun, the same path you walked to the practise grounds. Fear and anger are as darkness: it comes into your life, but it is not the whole of your life, nor should it be confused for all that you are. There is still the light that comes in its own time. There must be love to understand hate, and the headiness of youth is balanced by the steadiness of age. The one complements and deepens our understanding of the other. Do not accord anyone respect simply because they have love, or are old. The former must understand, not necessarily feel but understand, hate in order to appreciate love. As for the latter, you must understand that they have done enough to keep themselves alive in this world for so long, but do not imbue them with inherent understanding of life." She shook her head. "The same applies to me. If you show me respect for the grey hair on my head, Shibomuto, then I must apologise, for I have failed you. I have not taught you to respect people for who they are and what they do, but rather because their locks have faded and their skin has wrinkled. This was not my intention. I wanted to teach you to see beyond what others say, and find the truth in yourself."
He looked away, ashamed.
She rose and touched him on the shoulder. "Do not be afraid to feel. It is when you stop feeling that you lose sight of what is important. At the Temple we are taught that everything must be done at the correct time, according to its own nature." She smiled at him now, a real smile. "You must accept the whole of your own nature to understand the Way you will follow, and you will walk through the darkness and the light to find the end."
He pointed to the Dragon. "When I look at that, I wonder if I will be alive for my future."
"Then you are lucky, for if I were to ask that question of myself, I would know my answer." She shrugged. "Answers do not always bring comfort, Shibo. Do not be fooled into thinking that if you understand the answer, all will be well. If you search, look for the right questions, for even if you do not have the answers, at least you know what you are looking for."
So what, exactly, do you hope to find by staying?
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head, though there was no one to see the movement. Of course not. Shibomuto and Harikuyo were off cleaning the sword.
Had they not invited her to follow them? Or had she chosen not to go?
Gabrielle couldnt honestly decide. How could she decide, when she didnt know what was going on?
Xena, or Harikuyo, or whatever she was, that person, had looked at her former studentor rather, the remains of what had once been humanand said nothing.
Not a kind word, not a memory, not . . . a thing. She had simply gone and found the sword.
Xena would have become angry. Xena would have been enraged. Xena would have been saddened, vengeful, depressed. Xena would have tried to hide it, but Gabrielle would have felt the depth of her emotion.
Harikuyo had simply gone on to look for the sword, and smiled when shed found it.
Her own student.
In her journeys, Gabrielle had been joined by people who had called themselves her disciples, her students, her proteges. They had come because they had wanted to learn about her path, and how she could choose peace when violence was so easy. They had called themselves whatever they wanted, for she wasnt comfortable with the idea of being put on a pedestal. They were equals, she had argued, every time it had happened.
No matter what they called themselves, those people had been her friends. Were still, if they were alive. And if they were not . . . she could not go about her business as usual, but would have to devote time, thoughts, to remembering them. To saying goodbye, until they would meet again.
Even Shibomuto, Gabrielle thought sadly. Even he had passed his friend by. Granted, theyd not expected to find him alive, but to find him long dead, and painfully so . . ..
Couldnt they have spared him a goodbye?
She sighed and rubbed her temples. Maybe she wasnt seeing the big picture. Perhaps the way of death was so common in Edo that it was not to be remarked upon, or else not the custom to grieve in front of others.
They had time to polish his sword, but not cut down and bury his body?
It didnt make sense. No, she thought, she didnt want it to make sense, because the only explanation that fit the facts was distinctly unpalatable.
Could Harikuyo really not care? About anything?
Except the sword. And the Dragon, whatever that would prove to be. And Edo.
But not people, apparently.
Gabrielle suddenly froze as a new, unbidden thought came to her. Could it be? Was it possible that Harikuyo didnt want to feel, because of how Xena had felt when Gabrielle walked away? Could Xena have made herself over so well, so completely, because who she had been was shattered when Gabrielle had gone?
But . . . Xena had been stronger than that. Much as Gabrielle wanted, at this moment, to believe that the opposite was possible, she knew that Xena would have survived their separation. If Gabrielle had suspected otherwise, she would never have walked away.
I have to be missing something. She sighed, rolling her head back on too-tense muscles. It seemed, nowadays, that everything in her twinged or ached or throbbed, especially after pushing so hard into the wilderness. In their drive to avoid the army, they were giving all they had, racing time and man. She felt as though she hurt all over. The hard ride through the mountians punished her body; Harikuyo took her toll on Gabrielles thoughts.
And thats what Im waiting for. Some sign, some word, that we havent lost everything.
That I havent lost Xena.
Which means I have to go back and find what Im looking for.
It was only after her feet had found the path back to their camp that Gabrielle realised that, yes, there had been a choice.
She could have decided to go. Instead, shed decided to stay. To keep looking for the person that shed known, the woman that shed loved.
In deciding to stay, she had chosen the risk of not finding what she was looking for over the certainty that she would be hurt.
Xena was worth it.
But is Harikuyo? a little voice inside her head asked, and Gabrielle didnt dare answer.
Continued - Parts 5 - 7
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