All characters from the Xena: Warrior Princess show are copyright Renaissance Pictures, and no infringment is intended, nor will money be made. This is just for the sake of enjoyment, as I hope you do. The other characters and story, however, are mine. The story is set in the future.
Not much overt violence, but there are graphic images.
My deepest thanks to Inga, who beat the story into submission. She not only made it readable, she made it better.
And, finally, there is a separate authors note, in case anyone wondered about the definitions.
The Color of Darkness
The master paused by the shaking willow tree. It was one of the many lining the banks of the river. In the distance, the cherry trees were just beginning to bloom, a pale pink dusting on their canopies. A slight wind stirred the branches before coming to play with the trailing cloth of his robes.
A quick glance overhead showed the sun just past high point, when all would be resting after the noon meal, enjoying the meditations of private time. He had not remained indoors, but chosen to spend the hour outside. He was certainly old enough to appreciate the familiar sights, knowing it would not be long before he was no longer able to do so.
He looked again at the willow. After considering the bright green leaves a moment, he parted them carefully with hands as gnarled as oak bark and gently crept under the canopy.
He coughed lightly. "I have often wondered why it is named a weeping willow," he said softly.
The young student looked up, tears trailing down her cheeks. "Master," she gulped, and tried to wipe them away with one hand, the other awkwardly propped while she scrambled to rise. He raised his hand, and she stopped the motion abruptly.
"Even tears," he said, taking the moment to sit down on the cool grass, "mean something."
She tried to laugh. "They are nothing, Master, but the tears of a foolish child."
She looked away, blinking rapidly. During that time, he had the luxury of watching her. She had smooth pale skin, raven-blue hair, a clean profile clouded now with the effort of portraying what she believed she should be, in front of such as him. She was newly come to the temple, having traveled from her eastern coastal village just a few months ago. Though she was not among the worst of the students, he could already tell that she would not be the easiest. As one of the few women picked to enter the Temple as a would-be warrior, she had it harder still, for those who had come before her had set the standards high.
A whisper of memory brought a smile to his lips. Very high, indeed, as high as was needed to fly. He basked in that feeling for a moment before turning his attention back to the young woman. A single page of parchment lay crumpled near to hand, the white paper dappled by the shade cast by the willow tree.
She made a small sound of frustration, and he shook his head. "If you cannot control the emotions that compete within you, then perhaps you should not try."
"I should be able to control it. It is nothing."
"It is a nothing with a lot of power, then. I have not met many nothings like this one."
"I am a child, to be moved by mere words."
"No. You are merely human."
She glanced at him, desperation in her eyes. "Have I failed?"
"I cannot find that stillness within me, Master. I cannot be like you, or the others."
He cocked his head to one side. "Ah. Then yes, you truly have failed."
Her face crumpled.
"After all," he murmured, "you look nothing like me, so no, you have not become me."
"You make fun of me."
"No. I would not laugh at you, my child, when laughing with you is what I would prefer. But you do not laugh, and you do not look likely to laugh, so perhaps we should face the source of your tears instead?"
"I am ashamed," she said softly. "I shame my family, for in crying I have denied the honour of my acceptance here."
"The honour?" His eyebrows rose. "I suppose that at first it may seem an honour. After I arrived here, however, I seem to recall that it was very much a miserable experience, in which I learned how little I knew about anything, how badly I drew a bow, how weak I was in body, mind and soul. I was a young, arrogant boy when I arrived, and it was a shock to find out so quickly that I was not all that I thought, but rather only what I was." He smiled. "It took me many years to accept that person, and when I did, I found I had changed yet again, and I loved that one even better."
"But you were strong enough to stay here."
He shook his head. "I left while I was very young, thinking that accepting responsibility equaled readiness for it. Only when I understood the power of a promise did I understand that I needed to return and become the one I was meant to be, for I was merely a promise then."
Her eyes strayed to the letter. "I miss home," she said softly. "I am so far away. With people I do not know, in a place I do not recognise, and I do not know if I belong here . . .." Her voice broke. "I feel as though I have lost everything I knew, and everyone I loved, for I am so alone here."
"But you know exactly where they are, do you not?"
Her eyes flashed in anger, and this too brought that vivid memory to the forefront of his thoughts, though he took care not to smile, for he knew she would not understand. "You make fun of me, Master."
"I begin to understand that you do not speak what you mean, and you do not listen to what you know." He reached out and traced the course of a single tear down her face. "You know exactly where they are, my child." He touched the spot above her breast, where her heart beat. "They are here." He cocked his head to one side and considered her. "You are the lost one, are you not?"
A fresh tear rolled down her face. "Yes," she whispered. "In losing everything I knew, I have lost myself."
"I cannot find your Way."
"Of course you cannot," he said placidly. "My Way is not your Way, so how would you recognise it without a signpost?"
"Do you mean I do not need to be here?"
He shrugged. "Only you can decide that."
"But I can learn anywhere?"
"Of course, for it is Life that teaches us, not a classroom. Here at the Temple, we do not expect you to learn any more or any less than in the world outside. There is a difference, mind. Here we seek to give you some time to understand what you learn. The world does not often afford that luxury."
"I want to learn everything," she sighed. "How to be a Temple warrior. How to uphold the honour of the Emperor and the great Lords, and be more than a fish-girl. But I so miss the ones I left behind."
"You must never underestimate the power of the heart, my child."
"I do not, because I know how much it hurt me to leave."
"Then you have learned nothing," he replied, gazing out across the water, "for you have not yet understood that you never left anyone behind."
Chapter One: Home
The roofs of Amphipolis!
Gabrielle's footsteps quickened at the sight, and she felt the lifting of her heart as a frisson of joy sparked through her body. Her skin tingled, her fingertips ached, her heart
. . . her heart raced along before her, tripping madly down the path.
There were a few farmers, working the fields; she waved at them, smiling broadly for all to see. For the moment, it did not matter that Xena might not be there; what mattered was that her mother was sure to know where the bard's friend was.
And she could finally return . . . home.
She sighed at the thought, and absently fingered the hair that brushed past her shoulders. Home. How long had it been? Just long enough, and yet still too long. She felt as though she had changed so much, first travelling with Eli, then leaving to travel with anyone who passed. Anyone interested in learning and sharing the depth of her love with the world.
She shook her head in amusement. From plain village girl to warrior sidekick to bard to prophet. What would the future hold next for her? Some quiet time, she hoped, with a good friend. Some time to sit back, discover the changes in the two of them. Though if Xena were still travelling, Gabrielle didnt mind. Shed been doing nothing but travelling in the past years, but nothing like what shed done with Xena. The bard had gone from village to village with her various companions, rather than war to conflict. Those times that Gabrielle had gone off on her own had been full of meditation and self-discovery and chance. She had waited to see what crossed her path, helping out those she could with anything from caring for the sick to speaking to the lonely.
And she had found her calling.
She had taught people to love beyond violence, to put down their swords and pick up plows instead. She had learned how to study people so that she best knew how to persuade them to understand. To show them, through her own actions and studies, that it was not war which tore people apart, but hate and ignorance. Now she strove to follow a Way in which she recognised the good in all people, and encouraged it to come forth.
With Xena, she had helped those she could. With Eli, she had sought out those who needed her help. On her own, she had learned what it was like to help someone become their own person, even if all she could supply were kind words and understanding. Even that could prove to be enough, and had, many times over.
She couldn't wait to share what she'd learned. What she'd taught, these past few years, to so many people. It had brought them happiness. It had brought them understanding. Xena would understand, too, why she'd left. Why she'd been away for so long, for what shed learned would strengthen their relationship.
She was sure Xena would understand.
Gabrielle banished the brief chill. No. There should be no room for fear, only faith. Doubt crippled, but hope and faith could surmount any obstacle. In those first lonely months after the separation, after the crucifixion--
After she had left Xena--
Xena had understood then, at that time, that there was no betrayal, no repudiation of friendship. The warrior had been saddened, but she had not once asked Gabrielle to stay. Gabrielle was thankful for that. So much had been shared, up there on that wintry peak, so much bared and broken and mended again . . .
Gabrielle had left not because of Xena, but because of herself. She'd felt as though she'd been walking a precipice for too long. On one side, the sickening uncertainty of her own life; on the other, the ravenous, mutable grasp of Xena's dark side. The bard had fought both too long; had become too used to fighting herself. She'd felt as though she had to step back, to remember how to enjoy peace as something more than a stolen moment.
Everything she had done since then had taught her that, and so much more.
She hadn't meant to be gone so long. But there had always been one more person who needed her, one more village she wanted to try to reach, to spread the joy that she had found in living love, to find the one person who dreamed but did not dare, and help that one. To say the words that had meant so much to her, when she had been that person: yes, you can, and yes, you should.
A mere month ago, when befriending a young northern Celt who had defied his father to become a bard, she had recognised herself in him and remembered how she had gotten her start.
And been struck by a sudden sharp longing to go home.
So now she was returning to the person who had first taught her the meaning of love. The person who, in so many ways, had given Gabrielle a purpose in life.
And a reason to come home.
She'd reached the gate now, and passed through, her eyes drinking in the familiar sights of the villageno, almost a city now, for it had grown. Many things had changed, in the past years, but there was enough the same that she felt no loss, only joy. There were more buildings, more people; she saw unfamiliar faces that looked at her curiously. She merely smiled back warmly, she, the stranger with the shining face and the brightly coloured garb. She'd spent a little time mending the somewhat tattered robes during the long journey, but they were clean and well-cared for, and the vaguely Indian lines were so different from the Greek attire that everyone wore that she stood out like a sunflower in a meadow. She was used to it, for she'd had similar looks in all the Greek towns she'd passed on her way here.
She watched the people move around her as she made her way to the tavern, enjoying the simple feel of being at journey's end, of hearing her native tongue everywhere around her. Though she'd been listening to it for the last leg of her journey, the babble of overheard conversation had been merely been an accompaniment to her footsteps, hurrying them onward. Now it was like a song her body hummed: home, home.
Her eyes lit upon a lone figure standing still among the shifting crowd, and her lips spread even wider. Her steps broke into an uneven run, and she sped toward the familiar earthy figure of Xena's mother. "Cyrene!"
The older woman had aged badly, it seemed, and Gabrielle nearly stumbled in her sudden realisation. She did not misread the welcome in the other woman's eyes, surely, but those wrinkles had not come from laughter, and the lips were turned down at the edges, not up.
Gabrielle slowed until she was walking again, and reached Cyrene, who looked at her with mute horror. A slow fear spread through the bard's body, and she reached out, unable to find her voice.
No, she thought. No.
"Cyrene." She stared into the other woman's eyes. "No, please, Cyrene, don't tell me that . . .." Her voice trailed off. She could not voice the thought aloud. She could not even conceive of it . . ..
Cyrene collapsed into her arms. "Thank the gods," she cried, "I thought you were coming to tell me!"
"What?" Hearing that, Gabrielle found the strength to prop the older woman at arm's length. "What are you talking about? Where's Xena?"
The tavern keeper shook her head. "I don't know. When I saw you coming back, alone
. . . I thought the worst had happened."
"Well, where was she headed, last time you saw her?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. The last time I saw her, she was with you."
"What?" The bard's jaw dropped, and she found herself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. "That . . . that can't be! That was so long ago . . . that was years ago!"
Cyrene nodded slowly. "Yes, Gabrielle, that's right. I haven't heard from Xena . . . in over seven years."
Gabrielle sat down on the rough bench, the familiar room soothing her imperceptibly. But not entirely, for now she felt uneasy. Where was Xena? How could she be gone so long?
"No one's told you anything?"
Cyrene shook her head, exhausted after the flurry of emotions. "No," she said softly. "I've heard nothing. Not even rumours. She's simply . . . vanished."
"She's Xena. She can't just . . . disappear."
"I know." The woman's eyes were dark with concern. "It was all right for the first two years. You know how she is . . . she wanders, she becomes involved and doesn't want to bother us with the danger. I understand that. But after three years . . . and then four, and still no word . . .. Nothing, Gabrielle, not even rumours, and Toris went out on some trading trips and heard nothing . . .. That's why I began to wonder if . . . if she was all right."
"Toris looked for her?"
"Yes. He went to Athens, to Sparta, to your house in Potadeia, where your parents told him you were gone, as well. I felt somewhat better after that, because I knew you must be with her. But then another year passed, and I begged him to search again. He even went so far as to go to the outskirts of the Amazon nation, and still heard nothing. He asked after the two of you, and no one had heard."
"Did he ask the Amazons?" Not that they would have known of her exact whereabouts, being as shed always been somewhat hard to pin down, and theyd become used to her wanderings. She made a mental note to send a message to them, for she did need to pass by, but at this moment it wasnt a high priority. Had they known that Cyrene was searching for her, however, the whole Amazon nation would have turned the world over looking for her.
"No, he didn't get that far. He came back. I think he was afraid to be gone too long . . ." She paused. "Then we got word of you, three years ago, and I thought perhaps . . . but you never came by."
She had been with Eli again, and they had been on their way up north, to the warring tribes, and the two had felt an urgency that hadn't allowed her to stop in Greece, much less Potadeia. Nor had she wanted to, truth be told; she hoped her family, if they'd heard of her passing, had understood.
Not that she expected them to. But they didn't have to, for they were her family. She loved them, and she would see them and tell them how sorry she was to have been gone so long.
No, that wasnt entirely honest. She hadnt gone to see them because she hadnt wanted to return to her hometown until she was sure of who she was. Until she was far away enough from who shed been those last few times shed returnedexhausted from nearly dying, then fighting Hopethat she could face the familiar sights and not feel either guilt or shame.
But Xena didnt have those fears, not with Cyrene and Toris. So for them not to have heard word of Xena, in all that time . . ..
Gabrielle bit her lip, unable to stem her own worry. Somehow, she'd always imagined Xena as carrying on with her warrior lifestyle, fighting for good, helping those who needed it the most. In the back of her mind, the bard had been comforted by those images of her friend, wondering if the warrior ever returned to the forest where they'd first met, or to taverns where the two had stayed. She had imagined Xena thinking about her, late at night, when the space next to her was empty and the night was cold.
Just as Gabrielle had.
She wasn't dead, the bard assured herself. She would have known. Somehow, she would have felt it. Xena would probably have fought Hades for a brief parole, to come and tell Gabrielle herself, and to say farewell one last time.
She hadn't lost Xena without knowing it.
Gabrielle brushed her hair from her eyes. "She's not dead."
Cyrene shrugged, her shoulders rounded. "I hope not. I try to think only good thoughts, Gabrielle. I always have. She's my baby. She's one of the greatest warriors around. But to simply vanish like that . . . and not to send word . . .." Her eyes were clouded with pain. "I couldn't imagine her doing that to me. And I'm so worried for her."
"If someone had . . . won a fight with Xena, you would have heard about it," Gabrielle argued. "You don't think they would have kept it quiet, do you? No. So she's fine. She's just . . . out of reach." She smiled, even though the joy she'd felt early this morning seemed a lifetime away. "She's probably been stranded from a shipwreck, and is even now swimming back from some desert island, cursing the gods every stroke of the way."
"I hope so." Xena's mother sighed heavily, looking every moment of her age. "That would be so like her."
"And we'll have a good laugh, and a great story."
Cyrene suddenly looked up. "Oh, gods, Gabrielle, I haven't even asked about you--I'm so sorry!"
"You've got more important things to think about. I understand." Gabrielle reached across the table and took the other woman's hands. "Im fine," she said, and reached for the love that she carried in her heart. "And now I'm back."
"I don't understand how the two of you got separated. And you lost your staff?"
"I outgrew it," she replied. "And we didn't get separated. We went our separate ways." At the sight of Cyrene's face, she hastened to add, "No, we didn't have a fight. Nothing happened to us." She ignored the brief vision of white snow sheeting over her beloved friend's face. "It was time for me to find my own way. I want you to understand . . . I didn't leave her because I wanted to. I left because I had to, in order to remember who I was, and who I wanted to be. Id been with Xena for so long that it was easy to forget there were things I wanted, too."
"I understand." Cyrene smiled, though it was sad. "She's so powerful, so overshadowing . . .. There were times, when she was here, that I felt as though she blocked the sun . . .."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. She, too, had occasionally felt like that. As though she were merely an extension of Xena, as opposed to a person in her own right. And as much as Xena championed the bard's interests, and even defended Gabrielle's own right to choose, Gabrielle hadn't realised until those last moments that she had to walk away in order to truly understand where she left off and Xena began.
Oh, even the memory of that hurt . . .
Now she knew, and she wanted to share the love she felt for the world with Xena. To share that warmth in her heart, the joy at merely looking around at the world and the happiness that came with being alive. And not alone. And her own joy at having been a prophet of love, and hope, a part of something greater than herself.
Strange, that she instinctively knew that Xena was the only one who would be able to cope with that intense dedication, that joy that filled her completely. Only Xena would be able to be just as powerful as that love.
Xena couldn't have died. Gabrielle would have known, would have felt. She was sure of it.
Cyrene made an obvious effort to cheer up. "Would you like to stay here, then? We have a few spare rooms, and of course you're welcome to stay until she comes back . . .."
Gabrielle saw how the woman's eyes strayed to the door again and again, and though she was tempted, she couldn't accept. Not when the two would only end up staring at the door like a pair of forlorn hounds. She shook her head regretfully. No. Much as she wanted to take comfort in Xena's home, she couldn't rest until she found her friend again.
"I'm sorry, Cyrene," she said gently. "I need to go to Potadiea. See my family, let them know that I'm back." She couldn't, in good conscience, put that off any longer, especially now that she'd seen how Cyrene felt at her daughter's absence. Not that she'd done that with her family; she'd sent the occasional letter, but she wanted to see Lilla again, to hug her sister. To take comfort and share love with someone, because she wanted it before she began her search for Xena.
"Will you stay with them?"
She hadn't consciously made the decision, but her answer was on her lips before Cyrene had finished asking her question. "No," she announced. "I'll visit for a while, a few weeks maybe. But after that . . . I'll send word to you. And if Xena's not back by then . . . I'll go looking for her."
There was hope in the mother's eyes, but she tamped it down. "But . . . it's a big world, Gabrielle. Where will you begin to look?"
"She's Xena." The bard smiled. "Once she knows I'm looking for her, she won't be hard to find."
Two months later . . .
Tanewana Kohito managed to open his eyes this time, and was comforted by the blurry images. Last time, he had only seen darkness, though he couldn't have sworn whether his eyes were truly open, or his sight robbed from him.
Or perhaps, a familiar voice echoed in his mind, it had simply been night, and dark enough that you saw nothing.
He nearly smiled, aware of the irony of hearing his teacher's voice so clearly in such a befuddled state of mind, even more amused at the answer she gave him. It seemed he would ever be the student, overlooking the obvious as he had. And, of course, his teacher would always point out his flaw in thinking in her gentle, teasing way.
And what would you do now, Sensei? he asked the memory of her in his mind.
I would get out, she replied.
He couldn't turn his head to look at his surroundings; something grated, deep within his neck, and he could not be sure that it was the copper pegs they'd inserted into his flesh, or his very bones. Better not to try.
So simple, he told her image, and yet not.
As is everything, Kohi, she said.
Kohito nearly winced at the grating edge in the strange tongue. He understood the language, but he did not care to comprehend the hate in the voice. The hate bothered him. He was only doing as he felt right, much as the rough man was doing as he felt was needed. They each had their journeys, and if the men were at odds, what help would it do either to bring in hate?
"Glad to see you decided to join us again," a smooth voice interjected, and Kohi heard the breezes of the steppes, the dry, seemingly gentle winds that blew over the rippling expanses with little to stop it. Kohi knew that this speaker wielded his voice as a weapon. Now it was meant to be seductive, to soothe the pain, to promise relief.
A cool cloth touched his brow, and beads of water trickled down his face. He did not lick at them, despite his aching thirst; they would be saturated with his blood, and he did not care to taste any more of that. As it was, the cool evening air on his raw tongue would undoubtedly feel strange, perhaps even painful.
"The Dragon," the smooth voice reminded him. "You were about to tell us where it can be found."
No, said his mind-voice, sounding very strong, I was not.
"You can't hold out much longer," the rough voice said, and there was blurry movement, and a scraping sound, and the bright flash of flame before his eyes. The copper pegs once again burned their way into his core, and again there was fiery pain everywhere in his body, drowning out the constant thrumming that had been his companion for far too long.
So he concentrated on the gurgle that was his breath, the pounding that was his heart, and between the two he loosened the tether from his mind to his body and floated away, to wait them out. Sooner or later, they would tire of their games.
He briefly considered his memory of the Dragon, and was glad that he had not kept it, not even to defend himself with the merest of its powers. He could not have paid that price, for in the end, it would not have saved him.
Kohito remembered the touch of it, but felt no regret. It was a beautiful thing, for a weapon of destruction.
The memory of his Sensei laughed gently from within his mind, and he could see her turning those strange eyes upon him. As we are all, we humans, she told him.
Once again Kohi felt the urge to laugh at himself. Almost a year out of the Temple, and still he heard her voice clearly. He had travelled so very far from his home, farther than anyone else he knew, and of all the people he could namefather, mother, brother, friend or loverit was his Sensei that he carried most strongly within him.
It made sense, of course; he needed her most, in this moment.
This moment will pass, she told him, and it was a promise.
I know, he replied, and he felt little fear. How could he? His Sensei was here; she would be with him always.
Gabrielle was contemplating her meal when the stranger walked in. She looked up briefly, aware of the movement near her as the man sat down, and once she'd looked, she had to look again.
Was he from Chin?
He could have been, certainly; he had the features. The black hair, the upturned eyes, the slight, almost boyish figure, the graceful way of moving . . ..
She half-rose, almost unaware of her own movements. If he was from Chin, and he was here . . . perhaps a message from Xena, and he had come to look for Gabrielle? It would make some sense; if Xena had continued eastward, on to the Kingdom of Chin, she could easily have remained there for some time, entangling herself in their politics. Xena would do that, after having been the instrument of the last dynasty's demise. Her sense of honour would have demanded that she return to help rebuild Lao Mas kingdom, which she and Gabrielle had left in ruins. It would be just like her to go back and try to direct things to a new and gentler future. Eventually, after the danger had settled, she would send word of herself, and this man could well be it.
"Excuse me," she called to him, and he looked over obligingly, obviously having understood her. "Are you from Chin?"
Something passed over his face, but he merely shook his head politely. "No," he said with a lightly accented voice, "I am not."
She couldn't hide her disappointment. "I'm sorry." With a sigh, she turned back to her meat pie, dismissing him from her mind. She had to eat, to keep up her strength, though if the truth were told, she hadn't felt like eating much at all. Especially the tavern fare she'd been getting, of which meat pie ranked among the best. At least, she had hoped it was meat. If she concentrated real hard, she could almost believe it was goat. Old, tough, just-turning-green goat.
She and Eli had laughed, once, about the hardships of being prophets, especially peace-loving ones. Not only were they usually served the worst food, they couldn't go back and properly beat the cook. It had been a joke, especially when they preferred to stay among those they ministered to, eating what was offered and what they could find.
She moved the lumps around on her plate, watching as the less-than-flaky crust slowly dissolved into the congealed fat.
One thing she could say about her mother's cooking: it was good. Right now she could mourn the loss, though of course she wouldn't consider going back. Gabrielle had spent a month with her family. It was more than enough, she thought, smiling to herself. There had been times, near the end, when even her inner joy was sorely tempted with homicidal thoughts, and she had laughed at the vision of herself lunging up and throttling her family. No matter how serene she would become, no matter how much she reminded herself to love them, they managed to get under her skin in a million little ways. Then again, they were the same ones who had watched her fumble through childhood, so of course she would be sensitive to them.
She could love them, but in the end, she couldnt live with them, and she accepted that, and enjoyed being around them. And then she enjoyed leaving.
A month on the road, wandering through Greece, had just about brought her to the mindset where she'd been when she first came back. Tired of traveling, tired of the road, tired of road food and no-name towns . . ..
She hadnt been like this when shed first returned, she thought, and knew why. The difference came in knowing what lay at the end of the journey. Two months ago, shed thought she was returning to find Xena. Now she was just trying to find out if Xena was even alive.
No word of Xena. In that month, walking every day, a new place every nightsome of them hauntingly familiarand no word yet.
Not even a whisper.
Gabrielle would have felt it. Wouldn't she? If Xena had died?
She shoved her food out of the way and propped her elbows on the rough wooden table. Splinters dug into her skin, but she paid no attention to the pain. There were other, more pressing issues, and she didn't want to think about most of them; the pain was almost a welcome distraction.
She sighed again, and felt the soft tap against her side. Her flaccid purse; a quick flex of her thigh and she felt it slap loosely against her leg. No hope there, either.
She looked around the tavern. There was a crowd trickling in; dishevelled farmers, smiths with aprons stained black, and some stable lads. Not anything approaching high Athenian society, but more her type of people, country folk who lived hard lives and tended to enjoy the simple things in the day.
Gabrielle grinned. In the past few years, she'd done a lot of talking. Mostly about love, and not giving in to the violence of the world. She'd talked her heart out. She'd earned the right to be called a prophet.
But she'd been a bard, first.
Time to go back to her roots.
Half a candlemark later, she sat down, flushed. A man handed her a tankard overflowing with foamy ale. The tavernkeeper slid a plate full of steaming meat and potatoes in front of her. She smiled her thanks and dug in.
Just a few short tales. One of Xena's adventures, one of her travels with Eli, and an old joke that she'd dredged up out of the depths of her memory. An oldie but goodie, real country humour involving a man, a goat, and a watermelon. Her audience had laughed uproariously and tipped their tankards to her.
Now she had a few more coins in her pocket, a good meal in front of her, and a sense of belonging. Even if only for a moment.
That would be enough to push the darkness away, and it would last long enough for her to fall asleep. And perhaps she wouldn't lie on her blanket for the space of long heartbeats, staring at the empty space beside her.
Don't think of that. Don't think of the many things that have to do with that.
Gabrielle picked up the knife, and as she did, she suddenly realised where she'd sat down. Next to the outlander, as Eli would have called him. She looked over to find him watching her, and smiled at him reassuringly.
"You tell great stories," he said, and though some of the words were accented, she understood him perfectly. "Thanks," she said, taking him in. His face was thin and unlined, but she didnt assume he was young, for many of the people of Chin had seemed ageless. He wore soft black garb, and a long wooden bow rested against his seat. A quiver was strapped to his back, and he had a strange type of sword strapped at his side. It was perfectly straight and thin, and she didn't think it would be much use against most of the two-handed weapons common to Greece. He'd made it this far, however, so it had to work reasonably well. Besides, she'd rarely seen someone carry both a bow and a sword; most warriors tended to learn one or the other. He seemed shy, and her talents reared up and noticed his reserve. He was, after all, a stranger in a strange land, and if she could help put him more at ease, then she had at least accomplished something. "I guess you liked the warrior tale, huh?"
He smiled. "It was good, yes. But I prefer better the one about the prophet. About understanding love does not stop in the midst of violence."
She looked at him curiously. It wasn't what she expected, but it was a nice surprise. It wasn't often that she met warriors who appreciated the finer points of life, and the gentler arts.
Not that they weren't out there. Xena had taught her that.
She choked back a sudden sob. Gods, she missed her friend so much . . ..
He frowned. "Have I offended?"
"Forgive me. You look sad."
A quick glance showed that he seemed genuine, although she could only gauge by the warmth in his eyes. His features were curiously slack, as though he wore a mask.
"Yes," she admitted. "I am."
He cocked his head to one side, and she heard the question, even though he didn't speak it aloud. Something impelled her to respond. "I'm looking for someone," she told him.
"That should make you happy. To see your friend."
"I don't know where she is," Gabrielle admitted miserably. "And . . . I'm afraid I may be too late."
She shrugged, unable to say the words aloud. It would make the situation too real. But it couldn't be. She was sure she would have felt something. Xena and she had been through so much . . . it couldn't just end like this. It was time to change the subject to happier things, and wasnt she supposed to be helping him? Drawing him out? "What . . . why are you so far from home?"
"I am far from my land, yes. I, too, am looking for someone, but not as you."
"He's not a friend?"
"Of course he is. But I know where my friend is."
"So how can you be looking for him? Do you need directions?"
He laughed, or rather, his eyes did, for his mouth merely curved upward. "No. I look for what he has left, for I believe he had taken another path, one to the gods. But he has left behind things undone, and that is where it will not be found easily."
She paused and stared at him. "Wait. I don't get it. You know where your friend is, but you're looking for his . . . body?" Was she just not understanding him? Maybe his Greek wasn't as fluent as she originally thought. "Is he . . . dead?"
"I do not know."
Maybe he was just crazy.
"My friend is here." He touched his heart. "I keep my friend here, always. But I have not heard from him, so I came to find him."
"And you think he's dead?"
"He has not returned."
"So that means he's dead?" She was suddenly glad she'd not thought that way, not begun to believe the doubts. At least, when she saw Xena again, she would know that she'd never even thought that.
"It does not mean that he is dead. But I feel that the possibility is great."
She turned fully to him. "You feel it? In your heart? As though he's not there?"
"He is always there, in my heart. But I feel, in my mind, that he is dead."
He didn't look too worried about his friend. But maybe it was a cultural thing. Or maybe he'd been looking for a long time, and was just worn out from travelling, and hoping. "Where are you from?"
"A country far, far away. A great city, with tall mountains and ocean all around."
"Farther than Chin."
She was impressed. "So you've been looking for your friend for a long time, then. To have travelled so long." She wondered if she would have to go so far. Xena had gone further, down to the very depths of Tartarus. Gabrielle could do no less. "I hope your friend is still alive."
He shrugged. "I do not hope. What I find, I will find."
"And if he is dead?"
"Then I will know what has become of him, and I will take up his journey if he left nothing behind."
She was becoming impatient with their lack in communication. Being good with words, telling stories, meant she felt frustrated when she couldn't understand what was being said. "Are you travelling with anyone? Someone who can help, you know, in case . . .?"
"I travel with my sensei, who was also my friend's sensei."
"Sensei?" It wasn't Greek. "I don't understand that word."
He tested out several options before finally nodding to himself. "Teacher. Revered teacher."
"Are you students?"
"As we all are. Kohito has been gone from the Temple some time, however. Sensei decided to look for him, and I volunteered to come, so that I may be the one to return. It will teach me many things."
"Are you a philospher? A prophet?" He sounded like one. Although she wasn't in the mood to talk shop, Gabrielle remembered the loneliness of being on the road. Of being the stranger in a strange land. There were times that she would have given much to have a friendly face and conversation without having to work to create it. She was good at making friends, but that wasnt the point.
"No." He shook his head, but smiled. "I am merely a warrior."
"A warrior?" She perked up at the confirmation of his occupation. A warrior from beyond Chin? Then he not only had travelled far, but he would have hung out with the warrior-types that would have talked about Xena. "Do you remember the first story I told? About the warrior named Xena?"
"I remember your story."
"She's real. And I'm looking for her. We became separated, many years ago, and I think she went travelling, possibly eastward to Chin. She would be well-known, wherever she went, because she's . . . she's an incredible warrior. Tall, dark hair, has a very distinctive battle cry. You can't miss her."
He frowned in thought, then shook his head. "I know of no warrior with a battle cry, distinctive or no. And I know many warriors who are darkit is my people you talk about. We all have dark hair."
"She defies nature." That was a reasonably good description of Xena.
Now his headshake was vehement. "I know of no such person, nor have I heard any tales. In my country, that would indeed be a feat, for we do not even try." He lifted his palms up. "I offer my regrets for you and your friend."
"Never mind." She drooped, suddenly aware that she'd actually held hope that he could have told her something. Anything, any little clue to give her a direction in which to look. "I'm sure I'll find her. Eventually."
"You often find your friends very close to your heart. My sensei taught me that."
"Your sensei is a wise person. Where is he?"
He shrugged. "She is somewhere."
"Aren't you worried?" Then she answered her own question. "No, why would you be, right? Just because your revered teacher is wandering around in a strange country, right?" She was peace-loving, but she wasn't stupid. An old woman wandering around, speaking pidgin Greek? That was just downright dangerous.
"My sensei is of the world, and knows the way she walks. As should we should all." He suddenly seemed to look through her. "But you have tired of this conversation. As a speaker, you must be thirsty." He gestured at her food. "It gets cold. Eat, please. Forgive my rudeness and my presumption." He smiled once before turning away politely.
Well, that hadn't been too hard, if somewhat useless. And it had been distracting, which was all she could ask for. At least in this moment.
She returned to her food, but she'd lost her appetite again. After pushing the bits around a few times, taking a few desultory bites, she finally gave up and simply sipped at her mug, feeling the liquid splash down her throat.
The outlander got up, and she choked, sending a spray of ale onto the table. There was a small cry of protest from a short man sitting across from her, but she ignored him, her eyes fixing on the stranger's arm.
His right one. As he'd been sitting to her right, she hadn't seen that far arm all the while they'd been talking.
She hadn't seen the armband.
Gabrielle rose from the table, mug still clutched in her hand. A small part of her mind felt the ale slosh over her fingers, knew that people were staring, but she couldn't help the gasp that escaped her.
The outlander had turned to look at her, and she got a better look at it. Yes. It was the sameexactly as she'd remembered. A few slight differencestwo or three scuff marks in the leather, a few more dings and scratches on the copper, but it was the same.
Xena's armband. On this stranger's arm, bright over the black silk.
"Where--" her voice came out high and breathy, and she had to make an effort not to strangle the words in her tight throat. Her fingers opened and closed in mute supplication. "Where did you get that?"
He followed her gaze. "It was a gift. From my sensei."
She relaxed. Minutely. "Female? Tall? Dark hair?"
"Xena," she breathed.
He shook his head, and she saw something like pity flash in his eyes. "Not your friend, I think."
"You're a warrior. So is she."
"But she could not be this Xena whom you speak of."
A part of her mind wanted to scream so loudly that she couldn't hear the words he had to say. It had to be Xena, it had to be. It could be . . .
"I am sorry," he said quietly. "For if this is from your friend, then she is truly dead."
"No," someone moaned, and Gabrielle almost looked around to see who was drunk before she recognised the voice as her own.
He touched the armband reverently. "My sensei gave this to me as a token of remembrance. She said it was from a great warrior."
Was? Her eyes asked the question, her face begged the answer.
"She kept it, as a memory. To remind her, she said, of her greatest battle. And the honour that came from winning over such a worthy foe."
"No . . .."
He kept on speaking, his voice soft. "It was the one thing she took from that battle, my sensei told me, but only because she wished to honour her opponent. And even that much was too much, for my revered teacher had already taken too much of the foreign warrior within her. She gave this token to me, when I was ready to take my place in the practice grounds, to remind me that great victory does not always succeed a great battle."
Gabrielle fumbled for her seat with numb hands. No, she thought, this cannot be happening. "How long?" she croaked. "How long since she gave it to you?"
"I was but a boy," he said after a moment, "a small one entering the Temple. It was a long time ago, for I am now a warrior to my Temple."
He may have said more, but she couldn't hear it, couldn't look at him anymore. The pain was freezing her heart.
Gods, no, Xena, no. . . .
I should have felt something.
"Your teacher," Gabrielle said slowly, feeling the words well up from some dark pit within her, "gave that to you . . . as a gift. As a gift!"
"It was an honour."
"To you, maybe." Gabrielle put her face in her hands and breathed deeply. She couldn't deal with this, she thought distantly. Not now. Not with his smiling face, when his features softened with the memory of how it had come to him. Certainly not when she couldn't hate him, or even be angry with him. Or feel anything towards him right now, because she couldn't feel a damn thing.
She should have felt something. When Xena had . . . gone, she should have felt . . . anything.
"To your friend, too," he replied softly. "If I may share . . .. My sensei spoke of it once, when I asked about her scars. She told me it was the greatest battle she ever fought. For her to keep a piece of the warrior that was your friend . . . it was a battle fought not for glory, but for truth."
"Where you there?" Gabrielle asked dully.
"No," he admitted, and he could have sounded sheepish.
"Then you wouldn't know, would you?"
He was silent a moment, and then shrugged. "I know my sensei," he said. "She would do nothing without honour."
"If what you told me is true . . . if its true, she killed my friend," Gabrielle whispered.
He faced her. "Then your friend died with honour," and he turned and walked away.
Gabrielle barely even noticed.
Shibomuto waited patiently in the darkness, allowing himself to blend into the woods at the edge of the clearing. The doorway to the tavern was obscured by darkness, but he could see the light spilling from the small windows. No one moved in or out, but still he watched. He amused himself by imagining each passing moment as a raindrop, or as a breath of wind.
His mind occasionally came back to the woman, the storyteller. She felt such pain, which was wrong. She had been full of such joy when telling the stories, and he had felt the spell she cast with her words, even when he hadnt understood the meaning. In the end, he had understood the point; that was a great gift of hers, which taught as well as entertained.
He felt sorrow that he could not return her joy with his own story.
Perhaps, one day, she would come to appreciate his story more than the feelings it had brought her. She had an answer, after all. Whether or not she chose to accept it, she would eventually understand that she had the answer.
He didn't, to his credit, jump; he was too used to her, after so many years, to do so. In the back of his mind rested the constant awareness of her abilities. She, like a few of the great Elders of the Temple, could move more quietly than the wind. Shibo had taught himself to act as though she could always see him. It saved him surprise and shame, and as her student, he felt his shame would dishonour her.
"Hai, Mu Harikuyo."
She may have smiled, or it may have been the change of shadows across her face as she watched him. "Where have you left yourself, Shibomuto?"
"In the tavern." He pointed behind him, wondering how much to say. He would never consider questioning his sensei's actionshe knew her too well to believe she was anything but honourablebut still, having seen the sadness on the storyteller's face, he was sorry that it had to pass, and that it had fallen to him to tell the tale. Of course, the way that the paths of life worked, had the gaijin warrior won that battle, his sensei would never have come into his life.
She didn't look at the tavern. "Where you were touched by sadness, and carried it out with you."
He was not surprised she could read him so easily; after all these years, he was an open book to her. Indeed, he had never been a challenge to her, not even when he was newly-come to the Temple. "Hai."
"But why do you feel that sadness for me?"
He hesitated, wondering how to phrase the question. "When is it right to walk away from battle?"
"When there is no reason to fight."
"Have you? Ever had no reason?" She hadn't turned down any opponents, in all the time he had known her. But then, she'd been challenged only two or three times in the past few years, and by thieves as they'd travelled from Edo.
He almost didn't want to ask the next question; it was not only impertinent, but also offensive. "Have you ever regretted fighting, Harikuyo-san?"
She looked at him, and again, she could have smiled. After a moment, she shook her head, her eyes gleaming through the black mask she wore, as he had worn, to conceal their origins. "To regret your past is to deny the person you are the moment you come to ask that question."
He bowed to her, not meeting her eyes, for he had shamed himself by asking, and he accepted the censure of her lesson. Indeed, he was not worthy of such light reprimand
"However," she said, and he looked up, surprised. "I have not answered your question, Shibomuto."
He could not restrain his shock, and now she did smile, her lips parting to show teeth gleaming whitely in the dark.
"Our philosophy teaches that there are always answers, Shibo. However, one always wants to make sure that what was received is an answer to the question that one asked."
He bowed to her as a child would, low, not meeting her eyes. And when she turned to go, he followed quietly, his mind once again still.
Chapter Two: The Stuff of Legends
The woman named Mu Harikuyo settled easily into the seiza position, her thighs resting easily on her limber ankles. Her weight was centred directly over her pelvis. Her spine was straight but not stiff, the result of years of practise.
The night moved around her, the winds bringing her news of what surrounded her, what moved, what lived. She considered each fact as it entered her mind, understood it, and accepted it. After the night was as clear to her as day, she sank into meditation as a heron dove into clear water: without hesitation, moving swiftly into the depths to search out her quarry.
She examined her self with a detached inner eye. There were no flaws, no cracks. No uncertainty.
Some sadness, but that she accepted. It was part of her, and good that she felt that. Especially now, when there could come the Dragon in so little time.
She considered that future.
No fear. Again, sadness. Not the type that came with regret, but rather the fond wistfulness that came with remembering. It was good that she had this time, in which to remember.
The turning of thoughts brought her to Shibo, and the tavern. His face, his question and his shame at asking, had told her all she needed to know.
He had met someone who had been hurt by her, or her actions. She did not care to wonder who it had been, or what she had done to them. Mu Harikuyo could not do such things; it was not in her nature to relive the past, or to atone for it.
She knew she had hurt many people. It had not been difficult; in her youth she had been a great warrior, and many had come to challenge her, traveling for days and even months, for the glory of doing so. Her Path had been one filled with much death, with her as the instrument. Mu Harikuyo had killed many good warriors in the whole of her life. This she accepted, for she knew well that a good warrior was not always a good person. She had never been sorry to have been the one to strike the final blow. It fell to everyone, eventually; she had been the one to do the deed merely because that was what the moment had demanded.
Except for Xena.
She considered the one called the Warrior Princess, and all that had led up to that woman's death. That battle had been different than all the rest. Unlike the others, she had wanted to die.
No, that was not quite it. She had understood that she could not live, not as she was. Not when she had understood what must happen, what was needed, if only she could let go.
To have traveled so far, to have given up so much on the strength of faith, and not proof. But it was faith in oneself. Harikuyo smiled to herself, thinking of the irony. The Greek warrior had traveled so far, only to learn that she must give up everything, including her life, in order to remain true to who she was. The Temple warrior was retracing that path now.
Perhaps I am the luckier, the kikokushijo warrior thought, for there is nothing I can not give up.
Not must, not will, for the future was a cloudy mirror. She could see the shapes, but did not try to understand them. That would not have been right, and indeed, was irrelevant to the task at hand.
She could wonder, however, how much Shibo had guessed. He was one of her best students, though young. His mind was nearly as supple as his body, and Harikuyo had learned, in her long life, that such flexibility was as important as experience. When paired, the combination was both amusing and lethal.
For such a long journey, they had needed both.
She felt the breath of life reach through her body and thought of her best student, Kohito. Though he had left the Temple, he would always be a student of experience, and her student particularly. She had once hoped that she would, in turn, be his student, but that was not likely to be. Harikuyo did not expect him to be alive when she found him.
Which she would, because she must. The Dragon had to be found, or lost forever, and she knew the latter would never happen. Not when there were men like Dimenor, who would gather an army on the steppes, prepared to take over the world with the power of the Dragon.
Dimenor, who was deadly enough without that power. She had heard tales of him, all of which, without exception, painted him as ruthless. He wanted power, and he considered power to be the ability to deal death however he pleased. She had seen his camp, and even from a distance had known him to be organised, contained. Efficient in the art of war.
If Dimenor held the Dragon, he would be unstoppable.
The Temple had dedicated itself to the task of understanding the Dragon, and Kohito had not been the first to set out in search of it. He was, however, the only one who had sent word that he was close, and when nothing more was said, she and Shibomuto had left to pick up where he had left off, for surely he must have been turned from that path. Since Harikuyo was certain Kohi had told no one of his quest, she could only wonder at how Dimenor had learned about the Dragon. Not that it mattered greatly, for the most important thing was to follow her student. Beloved Kohito, who had been the best of those sent, who had travelled the furthest. He would have found it, or died trying.
But he would not have died unless he had been too close, and his training would have been little defence against the forces that could gather against him. Those forces were too strong already, even without the Dragon.
She remembered the army she had seen, gathering on the eastern steppes. She and Shibo had skirted the meeting of the tribes, but they had seen the different colours. They had heard the rumours as they'd passed through the small villages just to the southwest of that open territory. An army. A war. An empire in the making.
She could not ignore that knowledge.
The warriors of the Path would not have concerned themselves with such news; their concern, as always, had been the balance of the world. Having decided that the removal of the Dragon served that balance, the warriors concentrated on that, and ignored the gathering army. Even if it came to pass, Dimenor's empire could not stretch easily across the vast amounts of land, as well as the ocean that separated Chin from Edo. And, if by some feat they did manage to transport an army across the water, the warriors of Edo--of all the hundreds of Temples scattered around the land--would be waiting for them on the shore.
She was not here, then, for the country of her heart. She was only here for the Dragon, and what it meant to the world.
A legend. She smiled. A legend, come searching for a legend.
She wished she had enough time to find Amphipolos, and tell a mother that she was sorry.
Gabrielle couldn't sleep. His words haunted her.
She died with honour.
I dont care, she thought, I don't care. The point is, she died. She's dead. Xena's dead.
Despite everything that she'd seen--even having seen Xena killed, a time or three--she still couldn't accept it as being true. Xena couldn't just die. She could be killed, okay, but she'd come back. Sometimes it just took her a while.
She couldn't be dead.
Gabrielle felt something tickling her face and reached up to brush it off. A tear. Her face was wet.
No, she thought, turning her face into the course cloth of the pillow. Xena couldn't be dead.
Shibo was waiting for his sensei by the village well, aware of the looks he was earning by the curious townspeople. None of them reached for their weapons, and most gave him a wide berth, so he remained merely alert, as opposed to ready. The sun was high overhead, and he took the opportunity to look around, filling his eyes with the details of the still-strange land.
Very few of his people had ever left their island country; most who had returned to tell tales of strange wonders. Shibo was aware that, upon his return, his friends, his family, would press him for details of the gaijin lands. If he returned, he would not fail them.
No. He must return, for that was his task.
Though it was interesting; the more he traveled, the more things he saw that would remind him of home.
His sensei would undoubtedly have said something fit for an Elder, though she had only ribbons of silver in her hair, and not the full, impressive mane of the still-living masters.
She could have stayed at home, in Edo. No one would have questioned her right to remain. But of all those who could stop the Dragon, she was one of the few. Two others had been too old; the trip would have been too hard on them. He had been told that there was one other, a young warrior, and when he had heard that he knew there was no question that Harikuyo would have let that one go. As she had told the Elders, when they had discussed the situation, that one had no reason to give up so much.
Shibo had come with her, knowing that if she did not succeed, it was up to him to return the Dragon.
And knowing that, if possible, he would take her place. Such was his charge, by edict of Ominohashi-san, the Elder who had come to his room the night before the journey began.
"She is a kikokushijo," he had told the young student.
Shibo had bowed. This he knew, for it was hard to miss, though he had often forgotten the fact after he had been her student. A kikokushijo was one who was not a citizen of the country, but rather belonged to it. And, as a result, the country had a debt to fulfil to her, for her loss. And for her responsibility.
"You must protect her," Ominohashi-san had said, "for she is the one who can best retrieve the Dragon."
Not must, but can. Shibo had nodded. It was his duty to take her place, then, if he could, and though she had already told him he must not, he must take the opportunity should it come.
"I have come to give you this." The old man had produced a page of parchment from his robes. "This will help you understand our urgency."
He read it quickly--there were just a few characters--and looked up. "A man gathers an army, and seeks to take the Dragon?"
"If he takes it, we will not see it within our lifetimes, and chaos rules the world instead."
"If this is true--" His heart fell, and he realised that Harikuyo-san had known, and this was why she had sent her best student first.
"I can offer you little more knowledge than that you have already seen in our library." Ominohashi-san had sighed. "Few have known about the Dragon. Even fewer have written that knowledge down, and we have gathered all those pages that we knew of. It was hoped that this would restrict the abuse of the power possible."
"And yet there are those who know."
"Of course," the Elder said, and his voice had been matter-of-fact. "That is the way of great weapons."
"It should be destroyed," Shibo had murmured. He had read nothing about that in the library, but it must have been thought of before.
The old man managed to look surprised. "That is one option, yes. If it can be done. For we do not know if it can be destroyed. It is not known if anyone has even tried, and of course, there is always the fear of being the first to discover, when one does not know what the discovery brings."
"There is too much that we do not know."
"Then there is much that you can tell us, when you return."
Shibo had felt discomfort at the thought, and could remember the feeling all too easily still. Teaching his Elders? That was the way of the world; his masters had told him that, one day, they would be the students, and he the master. However, he did not want that day to come soon; he still had so much to learn.
"And if the Dragon comes? What then?" In that moment, he had thought, how could they destroy such a thing, once loose? What could they bring to bear against that power?
The master had smiled. "You worry for the fate of the world? Do not, for remember, the Dragon has been loosed before, and still the world goes on."
"But has someone such as this gaijin, Dimenor, been the one to call the Dragon? What happens when the evil is born in this world?"
"It spreads, like a weed, until a suitable gardener is found."
Shibo had looked up. "Ominohashi-san. Why is such a weapon never a tool for the good? Why must it seem that a great weapon always be evil?"
"Is it?" The Elder cocked his head and regarded the young man. "Remember, young man, that the Dragon itself is not an evil thing, though it has often been used for evil purposes. For what would someone who walks in the path of good choose to do with a thing such as the Dragon?"
Now he sat in the sunshine, and waited for his sensei. Once again, he wondered what would happen, if they found it.
No, not if. Knowing Harikuyo-san, she would not give up until she did. For her, it did not matter that a warlord wanted the weapon; like she had taught Shibo, the world turned with both a dark side and a light, and that neither would exist without the other. However, as it was within their responsibility to stop the Dragonas they were among the few who even knew about it--it was their responsibility to do what they could, at least for a time, until it rose, as it must again. Harikuyo-san had already accepted that responsibility. To stop it, for this time, because there was a chance that she could, and there could come a moment where she might.
That was enough reason.
He turned, startled, for the voice had been raised, and most likely directed at him. Across the square, the storyteller who wore the robes of the middle lands strode across the dust towards him. She wore a determined look upon her face, though he could see other burdens there. Fatigue. Grief. And even fear.
He waited, curious. Why the fear? He was not responsible for her friend's death, though of course he could offer his condolences.
She stopped only when she was close enough that he could see the way the light touched her golden hair. It fascinated him, the play of colours, like sunlight rippling off a koi's pale scales.
"Yes?" he said politely.
Her eyes were directed towards his armband, the one he wore with such honour. Her gaze made him sad, for she looked at it as though he had no right to bear it. The gift of it had been Harikuyo-san's way of showing respect for the dead warrior, and had honoured him with his sensei's expectations of his future. Of course he would wear it.
"It's the same," she muttered. "But it can't be."
He waited patiently.
She met his eyes. "I don't want to believe you."
"I am sorry," he offered.
"I've got to talk to her. Your teacher. To make sure."
He was not sure he understood her correctly. "To make sure . . . I do not understand."
"Maybe Xena sold her armbands. Maybe she didn't have money, or she was going somewhere that she couldnt carry them, and she gave them away."
Shibo looked at her in genuine surprise. "And that would make you feel better?"
She seemed momentarily baffled, and he struggled to find the words in her tongue. "You would prefer to travel, knowing nothing, than to understand what happened? You would follow a desire over the truth that is offered?"
There was a suspicious moisture in the golden-haired woman's eyes. "I had so much to tell her," she whispered. "She can't be dead; I still need to show her what I've found."
Then you are selfish, he thought, but he did not say that aloud. Harikuyo-san had explained to him that the gaijin did not understand their philosophy, or even accept their Way. She had told him that, in these lands, they did not consider the many so much as the one.
"And so they suffer," he had replied.
She had looked back at him. "If you follow our Way, you may believe that."
He had been so astonished with that answer that he had nearly fallen off his horse. The Temple never taught that there was any good in thinking only of the one! How could she say such a thing?
She had seen the emotions cross his face and smiled her strange smile. "Choose your own Way, Shibomuto. Do not merely follow this one because it is what you have been taught. Choose to follow because it feels right, not because it is the only thing you know."
"Are you saying that the Path of One is valid?"
"I am saying that most people follow their Way because it is what they have been taught, and not because it is what they have come to understand. You have been taught that these strangers follow the wrong Path, and they are told that you follow a foolish one. Who is to say what is right for all men? You can only say what is right for you."
"I am sorry," he told the bard now. "But I cannot help you find your friend, for I only share her history," he tapped the armband, "not her present."
"I want to hear the story of who she was, and how she died. That'll tell me if it was really Xena."
He nodded slowly. "My sensei has never told the story to me, but I have never asked."
"Don't bother," she replied, "I'll ask her myself. Where is she?"
Shibo shrugged. "I do not know."
"Is she coming back?"
"I do not know." He expected his sensei to send a message or give him a sign should she wish him to follow her; otherwise, he would wait at the arranged place while she gathered her information.
"Then what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for her."
"I'll wait, then." She shifted from foot to foot, obviously uncomfortable in the hot sun. "Why are you guys here, anyway? I mean, why did your teacher come along? You seem to be able to take care of yourself, at least if you're wearing a sword and a bow. Or are you guys really close?"
He understood that she spoke to pass the time, and though he did not agree with the tactic, he would tolerate her use--or abuse--of it. "My teacher comes because she must. I come because I can."
He sighed. "She has come to finish his journey."
She now seemed genuinely curious. "Is this a religious thing?"
He puzzled out that word; his sensei had taught him this foreign tongue during their travels, but the storyteller spoke the language as quickly as a river ran over stones, smoothing down the curves. "No," he said seriously, "but it is no less important."
She shook her head. "Well, whatever. I don't understand, but I guess I don't have to. It's not really important."
"No," he agreed, "you do not understand."
If he'd been Greek, she would have called him insufferable.
While reminding herself that there were a million reasons she might misunderstand him, of course, for she was not exactly in her right mind. Tired, angry, depressed. No, she was not balanced.
But since he was an outlander, she could tell herself that it was the language barrier, and the difference in their philosophies, that made him practically inscrutable.
He couldn't understand. How could he? She had spoken out against violence, she had dedicated her life to counteracting that cycle, and in the meanwhile, her best friend had died in some stupid misunderstanding . . ..
But Xena didn't do that.
Gabrielle rubbed her forehead. She didn't--no, it couldn't. She just couldn't believe that Xena would deliberately make a mistake while fighting. That was . . . that was tantamount to suicide. Xena wouldn't do that.
She couldn't be dead. Gabrielle would have known.
She should have known . . ..
Mu Harikuyo walked among the people, ignoring the stares she earned. She was long used to it. She had lived as a stranger nearly as long as she had lived with the knowledge of the Dragon.
This is how she would die, she thought humourlessly. For this was the way. It had to be.
She could not be sure of the manner, or the time. But then, nothing was sure in this life.
She suddenly paused at the edge of the clearing, seeing the flash of blonde by her student's dark hair.
She watched the two together for a moment. Merely watched. The difference was striking: the young man from Edo, dark hair, dark slanted eyes, dressed in black as was custom for the warriors of bushido. The woman from Greece, with feathery blonde hair, light-eyed, and with colourful foreign clothing. The thing that struck her the most, as a simple observer, was the difference in their body language. Shibo was merely a hand taller, and they were built similarly. However, he was restrained, no gesture made without forethought, no movement wasted. She was . . . free. Unrestrained. Her gestures spoke of maturity, but there was still freedom there. Unconscious desire.
Harikuyo knew who she was instantly.
There was only one reason why she would be speaking to Shibomuto.
Harikuyo considered the possibilities again, for this was something that she could not have expected, though she had not discounted it.
Yes, she thought, there is an answer here. But I must fashion it from nothing. I must turn hope into a weapon, and that hope must not be mine.
There was no probable future that did not hold sadness. Harikuyo accepted that sadness had its place, and that one was not whole without it. She would choose her course regardless of that feeling.
Stay, or go?
Each path still wound its eventual way to her destiny, of course, for she had accepted that end, so any choice she made would lead her that in that direction. Although there was a chance that it was not necessarily the end for the one known as Mu--indeed, by the very definition of her family name, there could be no ending--it was a slim one, at best. Harikuyo did not set much stock in her abilities, for she did not truly understand what she was facing, and so how could she know if she was capable?
She had only done what she must.
The ironic part, of course, was that she had been judged most capable of understanding the unknown. That the Elders of the Temple had looked to her as such a one, knowing that who she was, and not what she could do, would prove the most effective weapon against a legend.
There is always some truth to a legend, she thought, smiling to herself. Much as there was always exaggeration. She knew, from her own experience, that the less was said about something, the more dangerous it was likely to be, if only because one might underestimate the confrontation.
Again she considered the blonde woman, and she wondered . . ..
It was a small chance. A risk, and it would create such pain that the effects might never be undone, even if the gamble worked.
Was the pain worth the risk? Was the hurt that she would create, would focus, be worth the small chance?
The very small chance, according to what she knew of the Dragon. And yet, hadn't she just remembered that she knew too little? And was not omission often significant?
Shibo had seen her; he waited for her to make her decision without giving her away to the one who waited. If Harikuyo so wished, she could fade into the background, and Shibo would follow in a few minutes, losing his pursuer easily. They had much to do; she had spoken with a merchant just now who had remembered a curious foreigner who had headed north, into the mountains. The merchant had apparently seen Shibo sometime during the last night--most likely in the tavern--and had thought it was the stranger, come back.
So they must be on their way, and soon. Harikuyo had no time to allow for dealing with grief and anger, if it was nothing that did not serve their immediate and urgent end. She could make time, of course, but did she have the right to invoke that? What of her responsibilities, both to herself and others? For she well knew that if she hesitated, it would be hundreds, thousands, even millions, who would answer for her wrong.
It would be simpler to turn away from this nexus, and allow such moments of truth to remain undone.
Or she could go forward now, and cause a lot of pain by her very presence. Worse, she would create pain, by her actions. Could she do that to another, especially one who had already suffered such loss? Harikuyo could guess that it would pass eventually, but she would not wager; for all her abilities, Harikuyo understood that she did not know the woman who stood beside her student.
And though she would not apologise for what she had done, Harikuyo was willing to offer her regret for what could have been. Though that was not enough, she was willing to sacrifice yet another emotion. Yes, she should, for that would place the bard squarely on the path, in the direction she was needed.
Yes, she thought, for in this moment, it is need that matters, not want.
"So where is she?" Gabrielle did her best not to snap. It wasn't the boy's fault; for all she knew, murder was something acceptable in his homeland. It might explain why he wore so much black silk; his shirt was only relieved by a red silk vest, line drawings in the form of strange creatures rampant upon the bright colour. His loose trousers were tucked into servicable brown leather boots, which he'd probably picked up along the way. Other than his weird sword and the long bow that rested against his outer thigh, he carried nothing else.
Light traveler, she thought, but very noticeable. When she'd decided to find him, all it had taken was finding a market, and asking one of the merchants. She'd gotten as far as saying "Excuse me, sir, has a stranger passed through here?" when the man had pointed the way.
It was that kind of town. She'd visited more than her fair share; had been the stranger, she and Eli, too many times to count.
Didn't mean she couldn't appreciate it, when it worked for her. And she had enjoyed the moment that she had stopped being a stranger, and become a friend.
"She will come in her own time," the man said.
"Well, I can't just keep thinking of you as 'the stranger', or 'the man'. I'm Gabrielle. What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Hana."
He smiled. "That is my family name, Gabrielle. Although you are happy to call me
that . . ." He paused. "Excuse me, I am wrong in how I speak; you are welcome to call me that. But my . . . my own name is Shibomuto."
"Oh. That's new. Is that how it is in your country?"
He nodded, seemingly distant. "Our families . . . they come first. Well, after country."
She fidgeted in the hot sun. "What's your teacher's name?"
"Mu." He looked over at her. "Mu Harikuyo."
"So her name is Harikuyo? Her own personal name?"
Gabrielle tested it on her tongue. A strange name, fit for a stranger. A stranger that she would look at, and speak to, and love all the while. She would show this Harikuyo that Xena hadn't been the only victim that day. She would make Harikuyo understand that others had been hurt through her actions, and prove it to her by opening her own heart and being honest.
Not that Gabrielle expected to change the woman's mind--it had been rare that she hadn't been laughed at, especially by the many warriors she and Eli had encountered--but perhaps someday something would happen to make Mu Harikuyo remember her. And perhaps someone else would live, because of what Gabrielle had done. And that was enough reason to hurt this day. So that no one would hurt tomorrow.
It was the most she could ask for. If the woman ever showed up, of course.
"You don't think she would avoid me, do you?" Gabrielle asked casually. Wasn't very warrior-like, but she wouldn't put it past anyone who'd killed her best friend.
Shibomuto looked up to meet her eyes. "No. If she did not care to speak with you, you would simply not see her." His eyes looked past her. "Or hear her," he added.
Gabrielle whirled and gasped.
Right behind her, so close that she could reach out and touch her, stood a tall woman, swathed in black from head to toe. Unlike Shibomuto, she had no colour adorning her whatsoever, and like him, she wore no armour, just the silk clothing. She also had a mask on with a slit for her eyes; everything else, even her hair, was obscured by the dark cloth. What her clothes could not hide, however, was the musculature of her body, the power in the form, and the utter stillness. Gabrielle's first thought was that the woman was so still that eventually she would simply fade from a solid form into mist.
Still shocked by the sudden close encounter, Gabrielle stumbled back a few steps, and bumped into Shibomuto, who helped her keep from toppling to the ground.
She met the warrior's eyes, and it was as though her mind simply stopped thinking, her lungs stopped moving, her heart stopped beating. Her mouth was dry, and she could not remember the words to say even if she'd been able to remember what language she spoke.
The woman reached up and pulled her mask off. "Hello, Gabrielle."
"You're speechless." Harikuyo reached back and pulled her braid from where it was tucked into her neckline; one of the strands was caught, and now was as good a time as any to fix that. "Are you still a practising bard, by chance? Because I have rarely heard you rendered speechless before."
"Xena? I heard--I mean, we heard that you were dead!" Gabrielle looked uncertain, she noted. Apparently, the blonde's emotions were still boldly written across her face. Now the warrior read surprise, and joy, all mixed up with confusion. Her body was stiff, which was remarkably telling.
Or was. Much time had passed.
"Xena is dead," she replied. "My name is Harikuyo."
Shibomuto looked at her. "Ah," he said quietly. "I understand now." He touched the armband, a brief caress, and then he bowed to her, a deep bow, before turning around and walking towards the edge of town, to fetch their horses.
Gabrielle hadn't reacted to Shibo's statement. "Xena?" She walked forward and reached out her arms to the warrior. "Xena, you're alive!"
Harikuyo accepted the hug and ignored the name. To Gabrielle the change meant nothing, and so no insult would be taken because of her ignorance. She waited until the bard's muscles relaxed somewhat before pulling away, sure that she would not be giving insult. "So we are both alive, hmm?"
"Gods, Xena! I mean, Harikuyo! Whatever, you know what I mean!" Gabrielle was staring intently at her now. "Your mother is worried sick."
"I can understand that."
"We'll send word ahead, that way she'll be waiting for us. And she won't have to worry about you anymore."
Harikuyo saw Shibo out of the corner of her eyes, pulling the horses out of the stable. She turned to Gabrielle. "If you could send word, I would be more than grateful to you, for I have not only discharged my debt to you, but to her. This had been on my mind, and although I have no right, I do ask that you take this duty, though I understand if you can not." She smiled and dipped her head. "It was good to see you, Gabrielle."
And then she turned and walked away.
Continued - Parts 2 - 4
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