Chapter 5: In the Name of Love
"We've been seen," Harikuyo said softly. Gabrielle steeled herself not to look around at the hills; that would tip off the unseen watchers.
Harikuyo tipped her head just a little bit to the right. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
"I do learn," she replied, surreptitiously looking. Not that she expected to see anything, which meant she wasn't disappointed. "Did you get a good look at him?"
"That does not bode well," Shibo murmured from close behind them. "Can you tell if he follows us?"
"Yes," Harikuyo said. "And I do not believe he is alone."
"How many?" Gabrielle wanted to know, bracing herself.
"Only five or six." Harikuyo seemed to stretch her neck, rolling her head and closing her eyes. "That I can hear, anyway. There may be more."
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle wasn't sure if she was frightened for herself, or for the followers. Xena had been good. More than good. Somehow the bard didn't think she'd let her skills get rusty, no matter what name she was using now.
"Nothing. They are merely following. They may not know we already have the sword."
Gabrielle kept herself from looking at Harikuyos scabbard. What was so important about it, anyway? Harikuyo carried it on her, and wrapped the other sword in a blanket, which she'd strapped to the side of her horse. An intelligent observer would wonder what she had in the blanket, and make the connection. Gabrielle hadn't met that many intelligent bandits, or even warriors, but as she well knew, there was always a first time.
And it usually happened to her.
"Great. So we just act casual until they decide to leave?"
"Yes." Harikuyo yawned and stretched. Gabrielle knew she was testing herself, stretching to make sure everything was loose enough to move without constriction. "This path leads in a northeasterly direction. If I am correct in remembering the area, we will find a small town before nightfall. They will undoubtedly wait to see if we are from there, as they need to return east to the army, and this will save them from having to figure the logistics of capturing us, at least for another day."
"You think they were on their way back to Dimenor's camp when we came along?"
"I think they're on their way back now. Our presence here is too much coincidence."
Gabrille sighed and told the nauseous feeling in her stomach to go away. "So we shouldn't need to worry until we're leaving town?"
"Yes." She looked over and smiled at Gabrielle, a real smile, which shocked the bard somewhat. Oh, wait, she was probably doing it for the benefit of the unseen watchers. "I think it would be better for everyone if we executed a Joxer."
Shibo looked at them curiously.
Gabrielle couldn't help herself; she laughed, then lowered her voice so as not to be overheard. "We sneak out during the night, so no one sees us."
"I shall give you some money, Gabrielle, and would be beholden if you could get us some supplies. This will probably be our last chance to do so, and we will need to stock up. As usual, you are the best suited for that chore."
"Because she can easily pass for a townswoman, with her bright clothing?" Shibo asked.
Harikuyo shook her head. "Because she was always the best at bargaining." She looked at the bard. "You can meet us after the cover of dark, and we will take the supplies."
"Okay," Gabrielle agreed, falling silent. She knew what Harikuyo meant. Xena would have been more obvious about it, but Gabrielle got the message all the same.
If she was going to turn back, now was the time to do it, when those who followed would be more interested in the ones who wore swords, rather than the loner who didnt. Some might remain behind to watch her, but they wouldnt be interested in her for long, especially when she did nothing with swords. She would, in all probability, go unharmed.
Stay, or go?
She asked herself that same question over a hundred times while they rode, and changed her mind just as many times. She should go. Harikuyo wouldn't care, and although Shibomuto was a nice guy, he was wrapped up in whatever his teacher was doing. Between the two of them, she felt as though her heart was quietly crumbling to dusty pieces.
Gabrielle knew better than to think she was slowing them downafter so many years on the road, she was just as good as Xena in making and breaking campbut it certainly wasn't a happy journey. Not to mention that their destination would be Edo, but only after a grueling journey which would take twice as long, given that they had to circumvent the army.
But she couldn't leave Xena. Gabrielle was not merely clinging to the tenets of the Way that Eli had taught her. That fact wasnt a decision born from the cohesive expression of what she had always felt to be true, but rather a simple truth. Xena was her friend. She wanted Xena back, and if Gabrielle couldn't have her, she'd make do with Harikuyo. Whatever real Harikuyo lurked underneath that icy shell. Gabrielle would swear that something was under there, and having known Xena, the bard still couldn't be positive that this wasn't some part of a master plan.
Essentially, she thought with some self-disgust, she was basing a large part of her future on the most important person in her past. Because it wasn't as though she had actual proof that Harikuyo wasn't just the cold bitch she seemed to be.
When they rode into the small town just before dusk, Gabrielle still hadn't decided. The three hadn't spoken that much on the journey, each person lost in his or her own thoughts. As Harikuyo had predicted, they had not been attacked.
Harikuyo handed over a small pouch wordlessly, and Gabrielle rode off in the direction of the market.
This was just too familiar. She felt as though she'd stepped into the past, where they'd had a pattern. When they got to a town, they split up at first so that Xena could see to the horses and the lodgings, and Gabrielle could do her first pass of the merchants, marking out what they needed before settling down to serious bargaining.
That might be a problem, she thought. It was too easy to fall into old habits around Harikuyo. Believing her, for one.
Trusting her. Loving her.
And she didn't even know Harikuyo, not really.
But I can't leave until I know the truth, and I might as well accept that now. I may not know her, but I do know myself.
She did her thing, fishing for information as well as good prices. In just a little time, she learned many things. The baker's daughter was pregnant by the miller's son, and the parents didn't know. Hercules had been spotted up north and the townsmen hoped he would pass by and bring news of the giants, with whom he'd engineered some sort of peace treaty. Some of the men--not many, but a few--had left some time ago, traveling east to join an army that promised riches.
The merchants rolled their eyes and smiled; they'd heard that story before. So had she.
It was nearly full dark when she had finished, and she lugged the heavy rough sacks by herself to the only tavern in town, aware that if someone was still watching, they would surely know the travelers would not be staying in this town.
They just wouldn't realise how very short this visit actually was . . ..
XenNo, Harikuyo, she corrected herselfmet her at the entrance and took up one of the sacks. She didn't look into it, just nodded her thanks before turning back into the room.
"You're welcome," Gabrielle muttered, and followed her.
They didn't talk much--they couldn't, considering all the strangers around them--and finally, given to frustration, Gabrielle got up and started doing the bard thing.
It was habit, as she had always known how much easier it was to teach a moral when it was disguised as a story. And it was her only weapon, and quite an effective one, the way she wielded words.
She made a point of telling her first story about Eli, and about the love that he taught. The peace that he wanted to share, and how he sought not to teach just the people he met, but with everyone, with the world. How he believed that hate should be fought with love, and not a return of the dark emotion. She didn't harp on the point too much, just wove it into the more obvious plot of saving a villager from an unjust trial, but she still made sure to get the picture across.
Harikuyo seemed to be listening politely.
Her next one was of Xena. The Warrior Princess who had jumped onto the Lost Ship, all because her best friend was trapped aboard. When she spoke of the friendship between the two, of nothing coming between them, some of the women grew dreamy-eyed, and the men looked around at their fellows fondly.
Lots of applause on that one, and some coins. Gabrielle knew it would be a hit, it had, every time she'd told it during her travels with Eli. The story emphasized so well the power of friendship. The force of love. She had never failed to make an impression with that one, and a pointed lesson as well.
Some things you just did for friendship.
She smiled as she gathered up the coins, and she didn't bother to hide it when the smile became a smirk as she dumped the coins in front of Harikuyo. The gesture was childish, but it soothed her for the time. "I earn my keep."
The warrior didn't look down at the coins still ringing on the tabletop. "There is no reason why you must."
"Must what? Feel like I belong?" Gabrielle sat down. "Or go with you?"
"Justify your presence here," Harikuyo replied. "Or your absence."
"Are you saying is that you don't care?"
The warrior stared at her a long moment, then shrugged. "You would prefer that I say that, wouldn't you? But I will not, for it is not I that must make that choice. It is you that needs to choose, and quickly."
"Well, you know what? It's the weirdest thing, but I think my choice may have something to do with how you feel about my going along." She wouldn't be the unwanted tagalong again. She couldn't be that person. She felt no qualms about going along and fighting with Harikuyo every step of the way, but if the warrior told her she wasn't wanted, she wouldn't go. Simple as that.
"You may die, Gabrielle. By coming with us, you guarantee that you will be witness to battles and death, in which you will have no part. You will be placing yourself in danger." Harikuyo stood up. "If you have followed the way of love, of peace, for so many years, then you may not want to subject yourself to what I will lead you into." She smiled. "It's almost like old times, isn't it?"
She walked off.
The damn woman still hadn't given her any clear answer on whether she was wanted.
Gabrielle looked down at the coins on the table. She had picked one up while talking to Harikuyo, and was not surprised to see that it was imprinted into her skin.
She went with them. She held her tongue while they snuck out of town, when they changed their course to head north. She was silent until dawn, when they stopped for a quick break and food.
"I want to talk to you," she told the equally silent warrior. Shibo stopped what he was doing and stood up, bowed to them, and left.
Gabrielle looked after him, momentarily distracted. "Wow. He's well-trained." Then she turned back to Harikuyo. "I think that I deserve an explanation." She took a deep breath, ready to defend herself.
Harikuyo interrupted that by nodding. "I agree."
"Well, good." The tactic had thrown her for a moment; she hadnt expected Harikuyo to be so accommodating. "Um . . . let's start with the whole attitude thing. I want to know why youre so distant. Why youre so cold. I mean, I know you can be nice, because you don't do the same thing to Shibomuto."
"He no longer needs it."
"I'm not your student."
"I am aware of that."
"So you're just being cold to me because you need the practise?"
"I must be, for what I need to do."
"But what do I have to do with that? Why cant you just be the same person that you were, with me?"
"Because I am no longer that person."
"I get that part, thanks." Gabrielle just wanted to scream. "You're a whole new person, with new friends and family and country. Zeus, you even have a new horse! You keep telling me that youre leaving the area, probably for good. Fine. I accept that. All of that." And I would come with you if you asked, she wanted to add, but bit down before her tongue could betray her.
Harikuyo cocked her head to one side. "You didn't come merely because you wanted to yell at me, did you?"
"I am not yelling," Gabrielle said, gritting her teeth. She still wasn't sure why she'd come. She'd been too angry to figure that part out.
"Perhaps you should find out why you came."
"I know myself, Harikuyo. I don't need to be told what to do or when to do something. I do things based on what I believe, and feel is right. Im not feeling anything from you right now, and I cant think of any reason why that would be a good thing."
Harikuyo didn't answer.
"Why cant we just talk? Why cant you just . . . listen to me?" Which made her even angrier. Xena would have heard her out, heard the words. Well, if she'd been with Xena, this conversation wouldn't be happening, would it?
"You have changed, Gabrielle. Not as obviously as I have, but I see the differences."
"I'm still the same person where it counts."
"Is that good?"
Gabrielle reeled as though she'd been struck. "I can't believe you'd ask me that." Had Xena ever questioned her like this? Down to her very core? "Aren't you supposed to be giving me some answers?"
Harikuyo shrugged. "Just as you are trying to understand who I am now, Gabrielle, I am learning about you."
"But you know me. Or you used to."
"You learned a lot, traveling with Eli. I can see it now."
"I learned more than how to build a good camp, or sit a horse well. I learned how to teach people, to trust myself to make things better. I learned how to see the world around me."
"And do you understand it?" Her voice was laced with amusement.
"It's not important that I understand," Gabrielle replied, "as long as I accept that I can make a difference."
"Ah. And what does it mean, acceptance?"
"Love. For what something is. For its own sake."
"To see the world, and love it, all of its parts and players. That's the way, correct? That's what you have chosen to do?"
"You know it is."
"And yet you also speak of making a difference. Of changing it."
"For the sake of good, Harikuyo."
"Do you love me?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Of course I do."
"And would you change me?"
"I want to understand you."
Harikuyo smiled. "If bandits were to come out of the forest, would you defend me?"
She'd had this argument before, hundreds of time, with many, many different people. She was ready for it. "That's not a relevant question. Love isn't proved through violence. I would be proving nothing by killing someone who was trying to hurt you. Thats just giving in to the easiest impulse, not showing love."
"I know that. I am not questioning the expressions of love, I am questioning you."
"Oh." Harikuyo waited, watching her, and finally Gabrielle gave in grudgingly, acknowledging that there was a great difference. "No. I wouldnt hurt them."
"I did not ask if you would hurt them, Gabrielle. I asked if you would defend me."
"But I couldnt do one without the other. Not easily, and not without risking crossing that line. I cant pick up arms against them and not expect to hurt them, Harikuyo. I have no desire to do that. When I pick up a weapon, when I raise my hand to someone else, I lose. That's never an expression of love, its only giving in to hate. There are so many other things I can dotalk to them, reason with them. Understand them, and what to say to make them stop hurting others."
"You could die, if you did not defend yourself."
"I know that," she said softly. "Im prepared for that."
"Would you be prepared to watch me die?"
Now she swallowed. Yes, she thought, yes, I should be ready, but I dont want to think of that. "But I dont have to worry about that. You can take care of yourself."
"So though you love everyone, you are careful to travel only with those capable of defending themselves? And therefore yourself?"
"I traveled with Eli for many years. And you know Eli wouldnt lift a hand to defend himself."
Harikuyo smiled knowingly. "Eli has other things to take care of him. Doesnt he, Gabrielle?"
"Yes." She said it grudgingly. It was true, though; she had seen the Power at work too often to deny it. Something was watching over Eli, providing him safety, either through other people, or circumstance. "I know my Way is right, Harikuyo. I know because its worked for me this long. Ive never had to resort to violence, no matter how much Ive been tested. I have found that love is the answer, no matter the question. Love is so much stronger than anything else, it survives in the face of violence, fear . . . and misunderstanding."
"You used to know me, Gabrielle, and despite what you think, I am not that much changed. Now tell me that you honestly believe I would accept an indifferent love, especially from you? When I know you are capable of giving so much more?"
She thought it over, then shook her head. "I don't understand what you mean. I love everything equally. Eli taught me that; it's part of his Way, and now its a part of my life. You must love everything as you do yourself."
"If you love equally, then you deny the individuality of love."
"I don't get your point."
The warrior leaned forward. "You love as an animal would. I do not mean that to be cruel; hear me out before you speak. I tell you that you love as a response, and not as a promise." She motioned to the woods around them. "A deer loves its home not because it chooses to, but because it knows little else. You, Gabrielle, love instinctively, as part of your nature. I say this neither insulting nor applauding you. I cannot, however, have much use for that sort of love, for it is nothing I would choose for myself, and without your whole-heart commitment, it will change nothing. I leave you to it, and gladly."
She was on the defensive and knew it, but Gabrielle couldn't seem to get her wits together long enough to argue semantics. One part of her just wanted to keep the warrior talking; the other part was trying hard to understand, and not just feel hurt. "It's the only way I know how to be."
"It is how you learned. You loved Xena, once."
"I still do." She made the difference between Xena and Harikuyo obvious with her tone.
"Do you? Or do you merely love her instinctively, a habit from before?"
Now Gabrielle really wanted to hit her. Anger suffused her senses and her fingertips tingled with the urge to wipe those horrible words from the other woman's mouth. "I don't understand what you're talking about."
"You, Gabrielle. I talk about who you are, and how you love, for it seems that you cannot make a difference between those two. I, however, can." Harikuyo held up three fingers and turned them in the light. "'I love you.' Three words, three mere words, and yet they hold such importance in human life. Most of us use them instinctively, not understanding the depth the words can hold. 'I love you.' Listen to the words; do not merely hear them. All three are equally important in honest love. First, there must be love, in order to mean what you say. It is the base of the sentence, it supports all else." She closed one finger. "Then there is 'I'. There must be a sense of self. 'I'. When you speak the three words, 'I' becomes a gift. Then," she closed another finger, "there must be a 'you'. It must be something apart from the self, something other than the 'I' that is bridged by the love. Thus we have 'I love you'." She lowered her hand. "If you love me, Gabrielle, it is only because you have understood what it is to love unselfishly. And yet, at the root of the word 'selfish' is 'self'. If you do not love me, then it is merely that I am loved. Which I already know. So you do not love me for yourself, but rather for the sake of self." Now she smiled. "Do not confuse my meaning to understand that I would require you to love none other, for neither is that correct."
"My Way is true, Harikuyo. I know because it's the greatest truth I've ever known, and I feel it within me. I will not give it up just because you think I was wrong."
"It may be the greatest truth, but it is not the only one. The two loves may live side by side, and harm neither."
Gabrielle was so stunned it took her several minutes to recover. She felt dizzy, nauseous, adrift. Finally she found her voice. "And this is why you're such a bitch to me? I'm not selfish enough, like you? Because I want back the person that you used to be, instead of the one you are now? Because I can love you and still want back the person I knew as Xena?"
Harikuyo sighed. "No. That feeling is normal, even anticipated. I'll ask you another question, which may perhaps answer you in a different way. When is it acceptable to hurt someone?"
"It never is."
"In a perfect world, that would be the correct answer."
"I chose to live like that so I could help bring about that perfect world," Gabrielle retorted.
"But it is not here yet. Therefore you should expect to be hurt."
"I can always hope."
"Sometimes that is all we have," Harikuyo nodded. "We live our day-to-day lives, however, in this world. You and I both know that pain, whether physical or emotional, is a by-product of living. Sometimes pain is the only thing reminding us that we are still alive." Her voice softened, she smiled thinly, and Gabrielle suddenly remembered, for no reason she was willing to put her finger on, Xena's encounters with Caesar. The bard shuddered inwardly. Harikuyo continued, seemingly unruffled. "You and I both know that no matter how much you try, you will unintentionally hurt the ones you love, sometimes just in the course of being true to yourself."
Gabrielle tried not to wince. "I know that," she admitted, unable to do anything else when faced with the knowing look in the warrior's eyes. "But it still hurts, Harikuyo, because its you. I dont expect you to hurt me so much with who you are."
"I know. And for that I am sorry."
"So why aren't you helping me understand?" They had come back to the beginning.
"Because I am willing to cause you pain now in the hopes that you will be saved pain later. Because . . . by hurting you, I might bring about the best possible future."
"Is this all some elaborate scheme to drive me off? So that I won't be hurt when you leave, and never come back?"
Her growing anger was quickly deflated by Harikuyo's quiet "No."
"Then what is it? Why can't you just tell me, and save us all the trouble?"
"Because telling you would not make you understand, and in the end, would serve no one."
"What?" Now she was flushed with rage, and the only reason that she hadn't stalked off was that she had learned that particular action wouldn't solve anything. Despite the pain that buffeted her like a monsoon, despite the cracking in her soul, she would stay and understand. Or try to, as long as possible. "What are you telling me? That I'm too dumb to understand your goals, or that I wouldn't get this new philosophy of yours? Or is it that you dont trust me? Is that it?"
"I trust you more than you are willing to accept, Gabrielle." Harikuyo looked at her quietly. "And when the time comes, I trust you to do the right thing."
"How will I even know it's time? Or that it's the right thing? 'Cause you're not going to tell me that, are you, Xe-Harikuyo?" When the warrior remained silent, Gabrielle stood up, gathering her skirts awkwardly. "I'm sorry. I was trying to be mature about this, but right now I'm too angry. I'm through talking to you."
Harikuyo stood up as well, a fluid motion.
Gabrielle turned away, then whipped back. "You know, you just totally blew me off."
The warrior shook her head. "I gave you answers, Gabrielle."
"Not to the questions I asked."
"I gave those, too."
Some traitorous tears were threatening to fall. Gabrielle swiped at her face roughly. "Now you're going to tell me that I wasn't listening. Right? That I didn't pay attention."
"You heard me, Gabrielle. And when the time comes, you will know what to do." The warrior turned and walked away.
Gabrielle yelled, a wordless scream of frustration. It was anger, she told herself, anger and not pain, not heartbreak . . . oh, who was she fooling? Only herself. She crumpled to the ground. Only herself. Harikuyo had moved on. Now it looked as though Harikuyo had moved beyond the reach of Gabrielle's heart.
Moments later, Shibo appeared out of the foliage and stared at her. "I heard your noise. Are you well?"
"No. I am angry and hurt and frustrated and . . . and . . .."
He dropped his alert stance and crossed his arms over his chest. "Allow me to guess. You have just spoken to Harikuyo-san."
She smiled tightly at him, her hands clenching at the sound of that name. She was going to hate it soon. "How did you guess?" Her voice was civil. Barely.
"Because I often felt like that, when she taught me."
"Great." Gabrielle threw her hands up. "So now she's teaching me. Wonderful!" She whirled on Shibo. "Don't get me wrong, Shibo, you may think your teacher is the Sphinx's meow, but right now I could kill her, if I was inclined towards that kind of thing. Do you know how frustrating it is? I never asked for a teacher, I had one, Ive had dozens already! I came back for what we had! I just want my friend back! I just . . . I just . . .." The tears began to fall of their own accord, but it was all right now, Shibo would not only understand, but sympathise as well. "Do you know how insulting that is?" she asked quietly. "Do you know how hurt I am?"
"Yes, for I have been there, as well."
"But she wasn't mean to you." She looked at him. "I can feel the difference, Shibo. You don't have to pretend you don't see it, either."
"No, I will not. She was never so . . . casual with me." He looked away uncomfortably. "She was honest, which was more difficult to accept."
Gabrielle didn't even want to think about that. Honesty? If Harikuyo were being honest, that meant that Gabrielle had spent so much time learning about love only to understand that it wasn't meant to be studied. And that hurt. Not only because it meant that Gabrielle had stayed longer than she should have, accepting what worked for her as the way it ought to be. But also because it meant she'd walked away from the one real thing shed always wanted, and she'd never have a chance to get it back no matter what she did.
She tried to think about the point at hand. Take one thing at a time, she told herself, lose the anger and get back to who you are. Get back to what you know. Which meant seeing the conversation through more-or-less objective eyes.
Right. Concentrate. Relax. Remember. "She says she can't tell me why she's acting that way."
"Did she explain her reasons?"
"Some explanation. Told me that I wouldn't understand if she just said it. Life is difficult enoughwhy can't some things be simple?"
"Because if you are merely told, and do not learn yourself, then you do not understand."
She laughed sadly and sank to the ground again. "It figures that you would be on her side."
"I am on no one's side, Gabrielle. I have, however, been her student, and I understand the ways in which she taught me." He shot her a sidelong glance. "And she is right, you know."
"Of course she is. She's always right. Right?" Gabrielle laughed at her own joke, deliberately finding the little humour in the situation.
That was the basic problem, she knew: Xena had been right, all too often. She'd lived longer, done more, and from all that Xena had undergone, she understood people better . . .. Gabrielle sighed. Her own gift lay in seeing what could be. Xena had always seen what was.
Xena had been good at seeing what lay in Gabrielle's heart. Not great, but good.
Harikuyo was better. The thought chilled her unaccountably.
She stared upwards through the canopy above, letting the last remnants of her anger fade from her blood, listening to her heartbeat. Beside her, Shibo finally sat down, patiently waiting.
"I just don't understand why she's being cruel," Gabrielle said finally, "and it's hard to live with that. Sometimes I feel like she wants to hurt me. But then I look at her and I feel I must be wrong. And then I drive myself crazy wondering what her reasons are. Wondering if this is who she really is to everyone. Not just me. Even though it hurts me the most." She had spent a lot of time feeling like that young girl who had set out one hot summer night to follow a legend. It was an uncomfortable sensation. "If it were some sort of revenge, or anger . . .. That would almost be a relief, because there would be feeling towards me. I can turn hate to love, Shibo, I've done it before. Those are my skills. I can help you reach love, make you feel . . . hope." She paused. "But she's not showing me her feelings. She's distant, and I don't think she wants me to reach her. You should have seen her before, Shibo. She was wonderful. Kind and gentle. Always thinking of the other person. She used to sacrifice herself so much . . ."
"Actually, it does not sound as though she has changed."
"Tell me something, Shibo. If she were still Xena, I'd say that she doesnt want me here. That she doesnt really care. Or does she?"
Shobi shrugged. "She did not stop you from coming."
"Is that supposed to be enough?"
He slanted her a look. "If she did not want you here, she would have stopped you."
"So she doesnt actually care enough to hate me, she just doesnt care." Which brought her to another dead end.
"Perhaps she waits to see if you want to be here."
"I dont know." Gabrielle pushed her hair off her face with hands that shook ever so slightly. "To be honest, Shibo, I dont know if its worth it anymore. What we had . . . was good. But this isnt it anymore." And I don't know how much longer I can keep on going, she thought. I don't know how much more I can take being hurt before I decide that I can't change things here.
And I've never thought that before.
"Of course it is not," he said. "That was the past. This is now."
"Now isnt enough for a future. Maybe now isnt even worth enough right now."
He was silent for a while, staring into the distance, and she used the time to mentally scrape herself back from the edge that she so precariously skirted.
"To be a friend bears great responsibility, which one assumes without consideration of cost. To do otherwise would be to enter an agreement or a contract, whereas friendship is a journey."
"I know that," she replied. "And I didn't expect her to be the same person, you know. I knew we'd have to get to know each other all over again. It's been a long time. But I did expect to understand where she was coming from, Shibo. And now . . . I realise I don't know who she is. Why she does the things she chooses to do."
He hesitated. "I believe I understand now why you have remained. In turn, I will tell you what you may not know, and what we have both assumed we have no time to tell you." He was quiet another moment, and then nodded. "Yes. This is the right way, for you speak of cost, and the price is very high. You know your own mind; now consider what she has paid, merely to be here. Consider how much more she undertakes, to merely have you before her, to remind her of the price she has only begun to pay."
Gabrielle frowned as she made sense of the formal wording. "I dont understand. XenaI mean Harikuyohas fought dozens of warlords before, and you've both told me that the whole point is to return the sword to Edo, not fight. This guys got an army, but shes managed to outsmart quite a few of those, too. And besides, now shes got you, a trained warrior, by her side." Gabrielle gulped as the full import of what shed said suddenly hit home.
Of course Xena didnt want her. Xena didnt need her, frankly. The warrior had an equal now, someone to fight alongside her. Not just a friend, but a shield-mate. Someone to back her up, someone she could not only trust, but also rely on to stand by her in that moment of truth.
Which Gabrielle couldnt do. Wouldnt do.
In Shibo, Xena had found everything that Gabrielle was not.
Shibo interrupted that train of thought. "Do not confuse Harikuyo-sans goal, Gabrielle. Or my presence here, beside her. Just as she came because she had to, I came because I must."
"She asked you to come, right?"
He nodded. "Yes. She allowed me to volunteer my services to the Elders, and when I asked, she accepted my request. She knew she could trust me to do what must be done, should need come to that."
To defend her, in other words. To kill, if it came to that. "But she asked you," Gabrielle said. "She bothered to ask."
"Of course. No one should be compelled to witness what she prepares for even now. To force me would have been barbaric. To ask me was honourable."
"But . . . I dont get it. Youre throwing around all this talk about what must be done, and honour, and duty. Whats at stake here? I mean, youre here to return the sword and fight the Dragon if need be, right?"
He shook his head and looked away.
"Tell me," she said quietly. "Tell me, because I am here, and I have a right to know what I choose to walk into."
"It is her life," he said tightly. "Her decision."
"It's mine, too."
"Not in the same way." He smiled, but it was a sad smile. "And now I must tell you, for you are clever and will understand." He sighed. "We have found the Dragon, Gabrielle. The sword that Harikuyo-san took from the body of the horse. That is the primary manifestation of the Dragon."
"Whoa." Gabrielle sat up. "This I didn't know." They'd talked about the Dragon, but she'd assumed that was Dimenor, since he seemed the only thing that stood in the way of the whole goal of returning the sword to Edo. Harikuyo hadn't said much about the sword, though she'd treated it with respect; Gabrielle had actually begun to wonder if the sword hadn't been the dead student's. Shibo had never touched it, and even referred to the weapon--when he spoke in Greek, at least--as 'it'.
"Legends call the sword itself the Talon, the jewel set into the hilt is named the Heart, and the power that the sword Calls is known as the Dragon. Though from what I understand, the scholars of Edo have found that most references simply describe the Dragon, the Heart and the Talon as though they were one."
"Each part of the sword is named something different? Doesn't that get confusing?"
"It is not exactly comforting. The Heart is set into the Talonsword, which then Calls the Dragon . . .. As you can see, it would seem that there is much power here."
"I dont get it. Youve got the Dragon, or at least the Talon and the Heart. But the two of you keep mentioning the possibility of fighting the Dragon itself, and I dont get how you can fight a sword. Fight with a sword, okay, thats easy. But if the Dragon is the Talon, which has the Heart, and the whole thing is a sword, then theres nothing to fight, is there? Unless it's not reallywait a moment, you said the primary manifestation of the Dragon." She trailed off, her eyes wide. What in Tartarus were they carrying with them?
"Yes. It is the dormant stage, the sword. But when used in battle, or when used in anger, it is CalledI do not know the specifics, for they were lost long before I came to beand the Dragon comes. We seek to hold it in the sword, and carry it back to Edo, where it may be stored safely, away from those who would Call the Dragon. But the possibility of our avoiding a battle becomes smaller with every passing day, and every step closer to Dimenor, for he will stop at nothing once he is sure we have the Talonsword."
"But we're going to avoid him. Isn't that why we're heading north? To get away from his men and avoid his camp entirely?"
"Ah," Shibo murmured. "I forget that you did not see his army, nor hear the rumours."
Gabrielle felt a sudden shot of fear through her body, and remembered what the merchants in the last town had said. "Talk," she demanded. "Now. I want to know everything youre not telling me."
"I have told you everything as we know it. I am here to take the Dragon to the Temple, where we hope to keep it safe from those who would unleash it."
"And avoid battles along the way?" In a way, it was ironic. Here she'd been talking about stopping the cycle of violence, and then Xenaor rather Harikuyocame into possession of a sword that should not be used? Yes, there was irony there, and the gods were undoubtedly laughing.
"Of course that is our goal. But Dimenor knows we are coming, and now he undoubtedly suspects that we have the Dragon. He will try to take it from us, by force as is his nature, and is even now sending men after us."
"So we stop them. Or evade them, like we did last night."
"And what of the hundreds that will come after them?"
"Aren't they on the steppes?
"Now, yes. But if Dimenor's men do not succeed? He will bring the army for us."
She gaped. "All of them?"
She couldn't conceive of that. Moving thousands of men, just for a single sword? Had to be one sword from Hades, or worse. "Well," she said aloud, "I may not know this version of Xena, but I do know shell have a plan. That part would never change."
"Well? What is it?"
"As you said. We evade them, much as we did last night."
"And we do our best not to be caught by the army."
"We take the Dragon to the Temple. If she does not live, then I remain to see the deed done." He shrugged. "That is our plan."
She stared at him. "You call that a plan?"
"Just because it is simple does not mean it would not work." He frowned. "Unfortunately, the great numbers against us . . . that bodes ill."
"Isnt that putting it lightly?"
"We do not have a lot of options."
"Yeah, we do. We drop the Dragon down some deep dark hole and tell Dimenor to go to Hades and find it."
Shibo shook his head. "I thought that, too, and asked. But Harikuyo has a point. How many times have you buried problems, only to have them grow? The weapon will be found, Gabrielle, no matter what we do with it. The solution is not to lose track of it, thereby losing all control over it, but rather to place it in a known environment, and control who has access to it."
"So we just keep running until we get to Edo. Okay, thats the plan. Whats the reality?"
"We elude them until that no longer becomes possible." He paused. "And then we will have to fight."
"And whats to say he wont just kill us and take the Dragon?"
"We must not let him, at all costs. Better that we pay the price than the innocents who would suffer, should that happen. And to keep it from passing, Harikuyo is to intercede. That is her true role here."
"Harikuyo-san will attempt to Call the Dragon. If she succeeds, Dimenor will be stopped."
"That doesnt sound like a bad plan, actually. I mean, we know she wont misuse the power."
"No, she would not do such a thing."
Something in the way he said that made her uneasy. "And? Then what?"
He shrugged. "She will be the one to fight it, and I shall take it home afterwards, and that is the end of the tale."
"But what about Harikuyo? Is she freed from this obligation to save Edo and return the sacred treasure?"
He ignored her heavy use of irony. "Presumably she will be beyond our care at that time. Although the records are sparse, they were somewhat clear on that point."
"Do you mean . . .." Gabrielle let it sink in slowly, because there was no way she could be understanding him correctly. "You dont mean dead, right?"
He nodded. "Or so injured, it would make no difference."
She stared at him as the full import sank in. "You mean shes . . . shes going to die?"
"In all the known history of that weapon, which stretches back thousands of years, there is no record of anyone ever surviving the Calling of the Dragon. Some were killed instantly. Others lived but moments longer."
"The Dragon." He swallowed heavily. "The most powerful weapon in this land, and beyond."
"But . . . how can we stop the Dragon, then?"
"She does not expect to die alone, for if she Calls it, she will be its weakness. The legends say that when the Dragon is slain, the power returns to the Heart, to sleep again. And as the Talonsword, I will carry it to the Temple."
"Thats crazy," Gabrielle whispered. "Thats suicidal."
"It is very noble of her."
"Dont you get it?" She was almost yelling now; she just wanted nothing more than to turn around and smack the bezeus out of this . . . kid. "Its not noble of her! Its suicidal and stupid and . . . and selfish!" She started as she used the word.
Shibo merely stared at her for a long moment. "She honoured my country when she came home and took her rightful place among us," he said softly. "We recognised her when she came, and we welcomed her as one of us, as one of the best of us. We gained so much for what she lost. For what you lost, as well. I see that now. And I am even more humbled by her sacrifice." He bowed his head briefly, his dark eyes flashing in momentary sadness. "When I return to Edo, I shall tell my people of all she has given us, and we will honour her name for all time."
Gabrielle tasted bile in her throat. "Yeah, but shell still be dead!"
"How can she die, when we will make her immortal?"
"Shell be dead." Gabrielle said it flatly. "The living, breathing person that she is will be gone, and you think just because you say her name occasionally, or because its written down somewhere, thats enough to make up for the fact that she will be dead."
"She cared for us enough to give us the greatest gift she could. Not our lives, for no one could give that, but her own. How can we refuse such an offering?"
"Easy," Gabrielle retorted. "Just say no. Tell her that this is crazy. Tell her that this wont work."
"But it might."
"Thats not good enough."
"Thats the only thing we have."
"What is this Dragon? Youve talked about it, you've told me it's a force and a weapon, but youve never told me what it is. It looks like a sword to me! I want to know what it is, and I want to know now." If she knew what it was, maybe there was a way around that . . . that curse. There had to be. And she would help Harikuyo find it.
"I will tell you as it was told to me: the Dragon is the greatest weapon known to man, though only a few men are burdened with the secret of its existence. It was created long ago, when giants walked the earth, and magic ruled men. Who made it, and for what reason, I do not know. What exactly it is, I could not tell you, for the last Calling was centuries before our time, and the Dragon has been lost since then. All knowledge was hidden away long ago, as those who created it regretted their creation, and sought to destroy it. When they could not, they destroyed all understanding of it instead, hoping that such action would deter those war-mongers that such weapons would attract." He toyed with a leaf of grass. "What we of the Temple know is too little, but I shall share what else I have been taught. The Dragon is Called using the Talonsword, and, according to what little lore remains, the Dragon kills at the command of he who is strong enough to not only Call it, but to wield the Talon and hold the Heart. To control the Dragon, however, is beyond the realm of man, and the moment the bonds of mans will have slackened, the Dragon turns on he who Called it and slays him."
"And then it . . . goes back to wherever it came from?"
"No. Then it runs loose in the world, to wreak havoc upon all creatures until it is slain by one bearing the Talonsword, as it must be. Then it returns to the Heart, and the Talon is once again merely a sword."
"But if you can kill the Dragon with the Talonsword, why cant you just control it fully?"
"Only he who Called it understands the weakness of the Dragon, and how to control it. This understanding into the mind of the Dragon is essential, for something is shared within the Calling, and as one may control the Dragon, one may be also controlled by the Dragon. And from the moment it is freed, legend says that it will take the desire and want of the one who Called for its own, and destroy the man with the Dragon's greater strength."
"So take a sword to it."
"No sword may pierce the heart of the Dragon. Only the Talon may cut through the magic that guards it, or so we have been told. Thus the Dragon may be slain by anyone bearing the sword, whereas it may only be controlled by he who Called it. Through the bond of the Call, however, it is assumed that so long as the summoner still has control, he or she may kill the Dragon easily."
"So why can't Harikuyo Call it, use it, then kill it before it kills her?"
"An excellent idea. One, however, that those who created the Dragon thought of already. The writings are quite clear on that point. The moment the one who Called thinks of killing the Dragon, the Dragon takes him in turn, and kills him."
"So lets get Dimenor to Call it, and then let him getoh, wait."
He nodded. "Better not to assume that Dimenor cannot hold it at all, and instead looses it upon an unsuspecting world."
"I don't know which option would be worse: that he couldn't control it and it would run amok, or that he could, and it would do what he wanted." She shuddered. "Okay, he Calls it, we knock him out, and XenaI mean Harikuyopicks up the Talonsword and kills the Dragon." But again they risked the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, and Gabrielle could not accept that, not even if it meant Harikuyo's life.
She turned the puzzle around in her mind, but could find no flaw. The creators of the Dragon had certainly thought the thing through before making it. Unfortunately, they hadn't realised that making it difficult to kill would make it difficult for them to stop it, should they need to. Typically self-centred, she thought. They must have been gods.
She could see why the plan had been as simple as 'run, and keep running'. There really wasn't much chance for all the innocents of the world. That did not mean, however, that she was just going to allow Harikuyo to die. "Better yet, lets run real fast and avoid the whole issue entirely."
"Would that we could." The third voice was full of irony. "Although I had hoped to make that the plan."
Gabrielle turned around. "X- Harikuyo."
Harikuyo bowed her head, ever so slightly, at the two of them. "It seems never too late to discuss the future, though one must take care that the future does not occur before the discussion is ended."
Shibo looked up; Harikuyo nodded, and Gabrielle knew theyd just carried out a conversation without her. "What have you just decided?" she demanded. Something had just gone on. Both of them looked entirely too grim, and she wanted to know. "C'mon, spit it out in plain Greek."
"They're coming," Harikuyo said simply.
"Who? The scouts?"
"No, they're here already."
"So theyre not going on ahead, to tell them we're coming?"
"I believe they thought we were lagging. So they come to get us."
"'They?' You're not talking about . . . Dimenor's army, are you?"
"Yes," she said evenly. "A full battalion comes to intercept us. They are still some time away, but they are all mounted, and moving quickly. I could not tell if Dimenor himself came, but the men carried his flag."
"How could this have happened so quickly?" Shibo asked. Gabrielle was too dazed to ask many questions. They'd come. She needed more time. She needed all the writings on the Dragon, she needed to understand all she could so that she could think of something, anything . . ..
"Kohi's death undoubtedly angered him. It took too much time. He must have decided to send reinforcements to look for the Dragon, and when we disappeared, the scouts undoubtedly sent off messenger birds to redirect the troops."
"And he comes to cut us off?"
They all looked at each other.
"Let's go," all three said at once, and headed for the horses. Gabrielle looked over at Harikuyo as she swung up onto Torc.
"You didn't tell me you came all this way to die."
The warrior settled herself onto Kitsuname. "I am not dead yet."
"Could have fooled me," Gabrielle retorted, and took the lead.
Chapter 6: Enter the Dragon
The men of the battalion covered the hillsides, as thick as locusts. Gabrielle watched them, unable to look away. It was the first time she'd seen them, despite the three exhausting days they'd spent trying to elude the army. The three had spoken little, eaten less, slept not at all. She felt sick. Someone would die today, and she almost wished she would die first, so that she did not have to see the aftermath.
Shibo finished counting them. "Only a quarter of his forces."
"Yes," Harikuyo replied. "Not as many as he could have brought." Her eyes narrowed, but Gabrielle couldnt see what she was looking at. "Galiesh."
"Ah. His most trusted commander?"
"According to what I have heard of him, yes. Also the most brutal of his men."
"Given that, the sheer numbers seem excessive."
Gabrielle finally found her voice. "Do you know him, XeHarikuyo? Do you know Dimenor?"
"I have heard of him."
Which meant that he wasn't, and had never been, one of the good guys. "There's no chance of parlay?"
"I'll do it," she offered. Better to do something than nothing at all.
"No," and Harikuyo's voice brooked no objection. "That is not in the plan."
"I'd like to try," she said quietly.
Harikuyo looked at her, then suddenly leaned across and touched her. "I understand why you want to do this, Gabrielle, but I would prefer that you not try."
Gabrielle's pulse, already high, jumped at the touch. What had that meant? Compassion? Caring? Love? Or just the respect that she was sure Harikuyo would feel for anyone who had offered up their own sacrifice?
"You don't have to go, either," she said quietly.
Harikuyo smiled, though it was so subtle as to pass unnoticed. "But I must," she said, equally soft, "because this is why I came."
"To face Dimenor," Gabrielle said. "Not this."
"This is necessary."
"No, it's not. We've got fast horses. We can run." She gritted her teeth. "We can . . . fight our way out."
"I would not have you make that choice. I know what it means to you."
Damnit, she chose to be nice and understanding now? "It's our only chance, right?"
"We have the Dragon," Harikuyo replied, "and Galiesh knows that now. He won't take any chances, for he cannot afford to let us go."
"Does he know how to use it?" Gabrielle asked.
"I do not believe so," Harikuyo said. "Nor would Dimenor." She paused. "Galiesh will kill us, should he catch us. From what I have heard, he is that sort of man."
"Oh." So, no chance of getting caught, the waiting game that Xena used to play in the past. Allow yourself to be captured, wait while the lackey gloats, right before he drags you before the Evil Warlord, where you then proceed to trounce everyone in sight . . .
Shibo was watching the force curiously. "To stop the army, we would have to stop Dimenor."
"Hai. And Dimenor is most likely still on the steppes, with the remainder of his men."
"So what's the point of fighting this guy?" Gabrielle demanded. "You shouldn't consider wasting your time with him!"
"He will never let us go." Harikuyo's voice was very matter-of-fact. Gabrielle couldn't help staring at her.
Here was the greatest difference between Harikuyo and Xena. Xena would have been excited, worried . . . planning something. Xena would have cared. Even if she hadn't had a plan, or a chance, Xena would have felt something, and it would have showed.
Harikuyo didn't seem to care. There was no fear on her face, no excitement . . . just the cool, so-familiar mask. There was no tremor in the hands that held the reins; Kitsuname didn't prance with any transmuted excitement. The touch she'd given Gabrielle had been cool, comforting, but not persuasive.
Even Shibo seemed more interested.
For a moment, she couldn't bear to look at Harikuyo's face, so she had to turn away. Take a deep breath. They'd changed, she told herself. Both of them had changed so much. The truth echoed hollowly in her heart. But no matter how much she herself had changed, shed always held on to the part that loved Xena blindly.
Perhaps it was time to admit to herself that they'd changed too much. And that no matter how much she tried to be the person Xena remembered, Xena wasn't coming back for her.
"It's too late," she whispered, and she wasn't referring to the army.
Not Dimenor, but that didn't matter in the overall scheme. If even this much of the army was damaged, if she managed to hold on long enough, the destiny that Dimenor planned for the known world was not assured.
And if she could, of course, she would do what she could.
She was so close, she thought, watching her companions. No. Now, in this time especially, she should take the time to remember who she had been. One last time to remember, to taste the familiar flavour, and understand the enormity of what she had done.
She watched her friend.
Gabrielle looked around them, no fear in her eyes. Some apprehension leaked through into her voice, though she held herself steady. Remarkably so, given the circumstances. It was here that Harikuyo saw the greatest difference between the young adventurer and the seasoned woman, for Gabrielle had never flinched at coming death, but she had never looked at the future with such . . . desperate understanding. "Its too late," she said wearily. There was a tragic acceptance of not only death, but also her role in it, whatever it would be.
"No," Harikuyo murmured. "It is time." Now she glanced over at Shibo, who watched her with sad eyes. She reached out to him and touched his hand. "Do not mourn for me, my friend. It is not the right time."
"Hai," he replied, "I understand. I will grieve for you when the moment comes for that luxury. And when I do, I shall spread cherry blossoms for you, sensei."
For a moment, she felt very much like Xena, and she grinned. "Pink has never been my colour. However, you do what you feel is right." He smiled at that, and she turned to Gabrielle.
Her only hope. Her answer, though she didn't understand exactly how to phrase the question.
"I told myself I couldn't care anymore. But you know what? I care." The bards face was so open, so raw. "Are you going to tell me not be upset? Because I gotta warn you, Im not good at that."
"No. Your way is to feel, Gabrielle, even when what you go through causes you pain or suffering." She reached out and caressed the bards cheek, her fingers lingering on the soft skin. Harikuyo felt her secret self delight in this one touch, even more so because of her awareness of what soon wouldnt be. She smiled at her friend, though she knew what she was about to do would hurt more than anything she'd done before. To both of them, for not only what she was about to do, but who she had to be, for one last moment. It was time to give Gabrielle the last push, and send her over the edge, and hope . . .. And may the gods forgive me for enjoying the touch of you one last time.
"You have always been the brightest mirror of my soul, my heart. You were all that was good in the world, and in me. You taught me how to love."
"Gods!" Gabrielle captured Harikuyos hand with her own, before the warrior could draw away. "How can you do this to me? How can you say that after all this time, and then just leave me?"
"Because I must."
"Xena!" She still wouldnt let go; her fingers bit into Harikuyos hand. "I dont want you to go, Xena, please! Dont go, dont do this to us!" Her expressive voice was heavy with the tears that brimmed in her eyes. "Gods, Xena, dont do this to me . . ."
Harikuyo shifted Kitsuname closer, all without breaking the slight contact between her and Gabrielle. She lowered her voice into a soothing pitch. "You know I must do this."
"I dont care," Gabrielle said fiercely. "I dont care! I just want you, however I can get you. I dont care if its Xena or Harikuyo or even the Destroyer of Nations, I just . . . I just need you, dammit, and you cant just leave me here!"
"I cannot promise I will never leave, Gabrielle. I can only promise to do all that I can in order to be with you. This I have, and I do again. But you and I both know that what I do here, I do because I must. Because no matter my name, this is who I am. I can be no less, if you choose to love me." She stared intently at Gabrielle, willing the bard to understand. To hear the words so clearly that they would be seared on her heart, and available when the need arose. "Gabrielle, when you love me, when you shine so brightly with all that good, I can do no less than return to you as the light that shines in my darkness."
The tears fell as though unleashed, and Gabrielle leaned across her saddle and flung her arms around the warrior. "I love you, Xena, I do, but I hate you when you do this!"
"I know," Harikuyo soothed, her hands stroking down the slender curve of spine. "I know how much it hurts. I know how easy it is for you to love, and how easily I have hurt you." And I am doing it again, she thought, but that doesn't mean I lie. Her lips touched the bards forehead; she felt Gabrielles warmth and tasted the honey-gold tang of her skin. "Just remember the love." Her instincts told her to pull back; it was time. "Remember, Gabrielle, what I tell you now. Love is the answer, even when you dont know how to ask the question."
Gabrielle swiped at her eyes. "I know that."
"Good." One last touchoh, she wanted to pull the bard close to her, touch her, touch her own mouth to Gabrielles and say goodbyebut she should not, for Gabrielle still had a little more to hurt before she could do what Harikuyo needed her to do.
"I give you my heart," she whispered, and felt the ties loosen, and her soul come free.
She made herself turn away, her hands empty. Now it was time.
The future did not wait for the past.
She turned Kitsuname around; her eyes met Galieshs, across the distance that separated them. She could see his smile, and knew he was enjoying this moment. Which she did not begrudge him. Although she didn't know the man personally, she had heard of him during her travels. It had undoubtedly been he who had tortured her student to death, for Dimenor would trust the task to no other. Galiesh was his right-hand man. A warrior used to holding power, with none of the responsibility.
Watching him, she was aware that he was enjoying the tragic poignancy of the moment. She did not like him, but she understood him. He thought he had won; he would be, for one moment, at a curious sort of peace where his wants no longer drove him. She sincerely hoped he held on to that feeling as long as possible; it would be something to comfort him, when he died.
If he died. Which he would, because this was her task today, and she had sacrificed so much for it. Because she could not, would not, afford to sacrifice even one other person.
A slight nudge set Kitsuname walking away from the others. Away from Gabrielle, who embodied everything from her past. Harikuyo walked alone towards her future, as was meant to be all along.
She felt no regret. Harikuyo was meant to die. She had seen it in the writings of the Dragon. She had not understood how, or why, but she had known what was meant to be.
So here she was.
Still keeping her eyes on Galiesh, she allowed herself to wonder where he was, in his thoughts. Was he wondering why it was so easy? Or was he so relieved that to ask was unwanted? His wide, welcoming grin was smug, assured. Yes, she thought, you are merely glad that you have won. That was what he chose to see, for here she was, venturing through no-mans-land to meet him, and he could not accept that she would do so for any other reason than surrender.
As she didnt know what, precisely, would happen, she didnt dare summon the Dragon while sitting right next to her friends. Better to get as far away as possible from all those that remembered who she had been, and held that image dear. Her hands tightened on the reins, and Kitsuname obediently stopped. "Forgive me, my friend," she said softly, shifting her gaze in time to see his ears prick back curiously. "I must include you, as well."
Her muscles shifted fluidly as she dismounted; she was keenly aware of how her body felt to move, how the breeze and the silk cloth shifted over her skin, how her hair felt as the strands tightened on her scalp. Her heartbeat was steady, strong; she felt no coolness of fear, only sharp awareness. As she pointed Kitsuname back to those shed left, she watched them and suddenly remembered that shed left her heart behind. That explained the curious lack of fear.
Now she was aware of her personality, that thing which was Harikuyo, which had been Xena, as a separate thing, something distant from her body. Tethered, yes, but only by her will.
As she drew the sword, she imagined the blade slicing through that tether, and felt that, too, drop away from her.
Now remained only Mu. Mu, that was nothing and everything. Life, death, darkness, light; mu was everything, and because it was everything, mu was nothing in and of itself.
Galiesh had started when she drew the sword; now he opened his mouth to yell for archers, but that was an irrelevant fact. Now was only the Talonsword, the silver blade glinting brightly in the sunset light. She looked at the Talon as something that was a part of her; it was past time for thought or study. In the spaces where Harikuyo had been, there was emptiness, which waited for the knowledge to come.
It was like a battle: she did not what she chose, but what was right, in the moment.
The clear gem glittered in the light, catching her attention. She gripped the blade, just a hands length above the join of blade and hilt, and tightened her fingers.
Blood marred the twinkling expanse of silver, blood dripped down the blood grooves that flushed into the hilt. She watched, unsurprised, as no blood darkened the leather. She held the sword up to the light.
The sun caught the clear gem, showing the thin red threads that seeped through the heart of the faceted gem. The curls wound around the inside like smoke, spreading, billowing, filling.
Galiesh could see it; she saw his mouth open, screaming. She saw the arrows heading for her, but she merely waited. The projectiles sped toward her, getting within arms length before suddenly disintegrating: everything, even heads and shafts, dissolved.
She was not surprised.
The air around her wavered; sunlight was bent, warped around her form. The Talonsword once again gleamed brightly; the gem was now a murky blood-red hue that sparkled with an inner light. The hilt began to burn, scorching through her skin. The blade shone so brightly that it was all she could do to not turn away.
She understood. Reversing the Talonsword, she thrust it into the ground at her feet. When it entered the ground, there was a great clap of thunder, as though the heavens had broken themselves open. A jagged line cut through the ground, beginning where shed split the earth with the Talon, running towards Galiesh, who turned and ran. She paid him no attention, watching the unfolding of events before her. The grass billowed like waves, and the blades themselves shuddered, then shimmered. She watched calmly as the images melted away into a miasma of glowing colour, each separate hue seeming to flow into the middle, where that black line intersected space.
Something reached through.
A talon, a silver claw as long as her arm. Followed by a foot as long as her torso, broader than her shoulders. The foot was three-toed, each toe tipped with that deadly claw. The foot slammed down on the ground just beside the Talonsword, which trembled but still stood.
Another foot, on the opposite side, and the ground shook. She watched as the creature hauled itself from the swirling whirlpool cloud, looking wet and slick as a newborn. It drew itself high, finally all of one piece, and looked down at her.
A long way down.
She could not understand it as a whole; there was too much, too chaotic. Colours swirled around it, within it, and when she looked at the scales, she saw no reflection of herself, but rather a blurred image that drifted into sheets of mist. The talons were sharply visible, though, as were the eyes, malevolent red. It stretched wings that could shadow a barn, long scaly wings that glittered an irridescent green with black patterns like waves. Black whiskers, or perhaps they were tentacles, floated around the creatures muzzle; it opened its mouth, and she saw the fangs, longer again than her arms.
The eyes fixed on her, pupiless, faceted eyes, a billowing red, like blood. She felt no fear: it was blood of her blood, a part of her, as she was a part of it. As she was a part of everything, for she was mu, and she was nothing.
It could have smiled; it certainly bowed.
:Yes,: she replied, feeling the thoughts spill from her like water. :Yes, there is understanding, but there is no I. There is only mu, which is everything.:
It cocked its head to one side. :everything and nothing:
:As must be.:
:so will be:
The head swiveled around on the long, elegant neck. She realised, without surprise, that she could see the whole now, and it was beautiful, as the last moment before dying is beautiful, as one who has just died is heartbreakingly beautiful.
:there is want:
:No. There is need.:
She released it, and like an arrow, it flew. One moment there, before her, and in the next, it was a shadow in the army, but the army was screaming, horses spinning and wheeling, men running and dying. A black and silver and grey and green ribbon through it all, winding through the chaos, as bright as an afterimage in the eyes.
She caged it with her will, and occasionally it screamed when it touched those bars. The first cry deafened her to all else; it ricocheted through her mind and remained, a haunting refrain to the carnage before her. It fought her constantly, demanding more, more, more.
Not too much, she soothed. Not there, not that, yes there, yes him. Not that camp, but this one; not this man, but that.
It submitted to her, satisfied with the pain and fear she allowed it. With careful precision, she dismantled the battalion as though it was a mancutting out the heart, the mind, and the soul. Only when she was sure that was done did she stop the creature, tightening her will about it.
It returned to face her, its great claws sinking into the turf on either side of her body, just within reach. Its hot breath stank on her face, reeking of blood, gore, and fear. It was close enough to lash her with its forked tongueindeed, she could feel the hot spittle that misted over her like liquid lavaand she could see the muscles that flexed under the scales, rippling them with each breath. Though the creature didnt move, she could feel it ranging through her mind, testing the boundaries. Wanting. Needing. Hating.
The moment she'd been waiting for. The moment she'd made herself for. She was ready when it turned on her, latching its own will onto hers.
She let go.
It encountered no resistance. The tail lashed, the tongue slithered around the gaping mouth, writhing around the long fangs, but it still did not move to strike her down, not even when it passed through her mind, ranging freely through her very self.
:you understand the ways of the Dragon:
She could feel its surprise, an alien emotion from such a creature. :You were bred to fight, to want, to kill. But if there is no want, then you have nothing to fight.:
She released the cage of her will, allowing it absolute freedom. She did not think of Gabrielle or Shibomuto, or the Talonsword still at her feet; she merely set it free.
It did not move, indeed, it seemed to stare at her more intently, though she could not explain how she knew that. They waited, locked by their gazes, and she could not say how much time had passed.
Then it closed its eyes, and she heard something akin to laughter. :you have called me, and i have come:
:it is in the moment when you want nothing that everything is yours: Now it bowed to her, deep, low, baring its throat. :to understand is the last step to becoming, and you are worthy of all that you will be:
She said nothing, and it seemed amused; it even cocked its head. :you think you will die?:
:It is the way of all things.:
:but not this day.: It was definitely smiling, a hideous expression on something that barely passed for a face. :i know your mind, i see all that you have thought. i know what you believe of me. most of it is true.:
:but you lack the most important information. interesting that you succeed, despite it. or perhaps you do because of it.: The tongue snaked out, touched her cheek, brought the sensation of scorching heat, of fire, charred skin and dying screams. The wet thing slithered across her forehead, cupped her chin, tilted her head up to look directly into the creatures eyes. :you commanded me to come, but you do not know the extent of the power you have called. For i am not the Dragon:
She did not feel great surprise, but rather confirmation of suspicion, along with a growing awareness. It saw the changes and nodded, the great tentacles curving briefly around her face when they touched her.
:yes, i see what you suspected earlier. the truth is still more.: For a moment, it looked away, and she wondered what it saw. :the power of the sword lies in calling a dragon, and having it do your bidding. as i have done, as any of my kind must do, once summoned. but it is the power of the bearer that calls the Dragon forth, and that has not happened in thousands of years.: The creatures eyes were a golden red now. :today you called the power, and it has heard. it will come. it is yours.:
:It is not wanted.:
:it is the Dragon,: the creature said, stepping backwards into the shimmering gate through which it came. :there is no want, no need.: The dragon was fading from her mind, as was the voice that whispered through her mind. :there is only the Dragon, and Dragon will lead us to glory.:
Gabrielle watched as the creature disappeared. A faint part of her mind realised that she had a horrible headache; it had been difficult to see the Dragon clearly, even when it had stood still, facing Harikuyo. Something about it confused the eyes, as though it was never meant to be seen.
She'd done it, though, especially once the guard had been routed, as the face-off had begun. Her heart in her throat, Gabrielle had waited to see what would happen. The destruction of the army had disgusted her. The Dragon waiting, merely standing in front of her friend, had been terrifying.
Harikuyo might well have been a statue, even when the creature touched her. Gabrielle had shuddered at the sight, had nearly kicked Torc into a gallop, but Shobis hand had suddenly come and grasped the reins before Gabrielle could make up her mind.
"No," he whispered. "Do not distract her now."
"I dont like this." It wasn't just that she didn't understand. She had a very bad feeling about this.
"Neither do I, though I suspect they are locked in a battle we can not witness. To disturb her in this moment would be fatal, not only for her, but for all of us." He never took his eyes off his teacher. "You saw how easily it destroyed the battalion, Gabrielle. Two thousand men, most of them dead."
"We cant just leave her there!"
"We must, for she chose this road long ago." He did not give her time to respond, for he frowned. "Something is happening."
The creature was bowing to Harikuyo. The creature was bowing to her, and then it stepped back into the glowing vortex of the grass. Gabrielle suddenly felt like sagging in her saddle; her relief was almost too much to bear. "Its going!" Wonder seeped through her body, along with delicious joy. "She won! Xena won!"
Her breath caught in her throat when she saw her friend fall. "What? Shibo"
He would not release the reins, however; Torc was still tethered to his horse by his strong grip. Gabrielle looked at him briefly, and was shocked to see his face turn white.
"She needs our help!" she told him. "Shes tired!"
"This is not exhaustion, Gabrielle. This is something different."
Harikuyo had collapsed onto the grass, falling directly in front of the sword. Gabrielle stared. The sunset light had caught the still-red Heart and now inflamed it. It had to be her imagination that it seemed to be beating
She flung herself off her horse and began running.
Something was flowing from the sword, and from the Heart. The black ribbon that had disgorged the Dragon now streamed violent colour, jagged and harsh, which sheeted over Harikuyos form like some strange mist. Shapes swirled in the cloud, things that reached out to cover the warrior, to drown her in the miasma.
Gabrielle ran harder.
Harikuyos form became indistinct, then lost entirely. Only the colours remained, and they began to spread back along the black ribbon. Before Gabrielle was even half way down the hill, the cloud engulfed the Heart. If she concentrated, she could still see it, pulsing steadily through the colour.
She screamed, hoping for some answer, her cry instinctive. "Xena!"
In a few momentstoo late, too lateshe stumbled to a halt within arms reach of the cloud. From this close distance, she could see it as something with solid form, feel the too-cold air that blasted from it. It was difficult to look at; it dizzied her eyes and confused her mind.
She ached to reach out and grab it, to pull it aside so that she could reach in and . . . and do something, anything. But she could not. Though her heart strained at its tethers, her body obeyed some primitive instinct that cried out against being so close to the shimmering edge. Her mind screamed out to run; her heart refused to do anything but follow Xena.
She was trapped.
Deep in the vortex, the Heart still glowed, shining through the colour changes. As she watched it, she suddenly sensed its rhythms, like an echo of her blood. She heardno, she feltthe beats as a thunder that spread through her body, drumming over her pulse.
Something moved within the patterns of the vortex. Gabrielle willed her eyes to see, to pierce through the confusion of the fog. No, it was not some thing, but many things that moved. Hundreds. Thousands. All moving around the beating Heart.
Her body thrummed, her senses reeled, and her instincts filled her with primordial dread. But now she couldn't: sheer terror rooted her to the spot. Now was too late, much too late.
A crack that split the sky, a scream that echoed in her head, and the ground trembled as something huge slammed into the earth beside her. She felt the air of its passing, and she closed her eyes as she trembled. Another crack nearly brought her to her knees, and again she felt the whistling wind just past her face, on the other side.
Then there was silence, and stillness. Gabrielle finally dared to open her eyes. When she looked up, she forgot to breathe.
It was huge. Its head was larger than her body. A tuft of tentacles dripped from its lower jaw like a beard, spikes grew from its crest like a mane, stiff and yet soft; Gabrielle could hear the musical clacking as the spikes moved against each other with the wind. A wind that was partially generated by the creature itself as it spread, stretched, and the wings were turned to the sun. The leather rustled like silk; the pinions were tipped with curved vestigial claws.
But three things caught her attention. One was the colour of the creature: she couldn't have sworn to one. The hues shifted and changed in every moment, making the creature at one moment black, then green, then silver, blue, brass. The effect dizzied the eyes, made the creature waver against the background, as though it wasnt quite real, or not quite here.
The other was that this creature had brilliant blue eyes, like sapphires. No pupils, just facets, like a finely cut jewel.
The third thing, the one that took her breath away, was the Heart.
It was set into the creature's chest, a part of the living skin. The creature's scales were set around it in a strange pattern, holding the jewel flush against the breast. The Heart was not an ornament; it was not fastened on. She could see it, she was close enough to touch it. Close enough to see that it glittered and burned with an inner light.
The Dragonbecause it was the Dragon, it couldn't be anything elseswivelled its head and looked down at her through one brilliant sapphire eye that was nearly as large as her head.
She blinked. The concept was too great to grasp. She could feel her thoughts trying to understand the concept, but it kept slipping through any hold she had on it.
:And Shibomuto. Yes. I understand.: The voice was thoughtful, steady, strong. It reverberated within Gabrielle's skull like far-off thunder.
She choked out air before she remembered how to speak. "X-xena? Or Harikuyo?"
:What was.: The head moved around, and the Dragon appeared for all the world as though it was looking at something it had never seen before.
She stepped forward blindly, her hand reaching up. "Xena? Is that you?" Then she touched the Dragon. A scale edge sliced through her palm, and she felt nothing else but a painful, seizing cold. She uttered a short, sharp cry before snatching her hand back to watch her palm slowly become coated with blood. The cut was not shallow, the scales were sharp and had cut through nearly to the tendons. It hurt like Tartarus, burned like Hades.
The Dragon peered at the cut with curiousity. :Interesting.:
"Interesting? It hurts!" She clutched her hand to her chest, putting pressure on the wound as she awkwardly unwound a bit of her sari. She tied off her hand quickly, watching as the blood seeped through the cloth. Everything seemed so unreal, so distant. She looked up at the Dragon, and was surprised to see that she couldn't quite focus on the creature. There was blackness hovering at the edges of her sight, and as she looked, she could see it spreading into her vision, red at the edges. "Xena?" She swayed, and in the sudden dizziness, nearly forgot herself. Just as she put out her hand again, to steady herself on the nearby leg, she remembered and whipped it back.
The movement off-balanced her, and she fell on her side, landing heavily. It was nearly enough to knock her out of breath. She rolled to lie on her back, feeling very heavy, very ill. The sky danced above her, the clouds twirled.
The Dragon's head suddenly blocked all that; she stared into those blue eyes and couldn't help reaching up. The tentacles tickled her good palm and wrapped gently around her wrist. "I don't feel so good," she admitted muzzily.
:No,: the Dragon said, :dying rarely does.:
Chapter 7: The Dying of the Light
The Dragon loved to fly; she could not remember a time when she had not known how to fly. The sensation was familiar, and yet strangely new. In those first few moments, after most of what had been needed had been done, she had flown for the sheer sensation of the wind flowing over her body, intimate, yet with such power. But that power was hers. She understood how to use it, direct it, make it hers.
Now she would use those winds to take her far into the mountains that beckoned to her when she hung high above the land; wherever she paused, she felt them, touching her mind. As she had slept, she had heard their hum, transmitted through the mass of the peak upon which she had slept. They were a part of her destiny, a reservoir for her resources. It was time to go.
She rose from her bed of snow, flakes exploding in all directions. Pinions stretched, wings cupped, and she was aloft, lifting up into the sky. The thermals were as obvious to her as a path in a wood. The hot currents pressed against the leather of her wings, shimmered off her scales, made her crest spines peal with a many-throated song that she heard and felt echoed along her bones.
At first she watched her shadow grow smaller and smaller upon the ground, then she merely watched the lie of the land. She twisted through the air to go higher, sliding through the layers like a snake, her tail slashing through the currents to take her where she needed to go.
Higher still. The mountains loomed ahead of her now, calling to her through the wind.
There is no colour.
Surprise. The voice came from a small corner of her mind, one that still remembered being something else. One piece that was not the Dragon.
More surprise, that there was something that was not Dragon. She circled it, studied it. The voice did have a point, however. She focussed outward again, twisting her serpentine neck to gaze below, aware of the difference.
No colour. She could remember green, the different greens of the trees and grass. The shimmering blues of water and sky, the reds and browns of scarred earth and bark.
None of that remained. Now there was only black and white, and all the shades of grey between.
Ah. She remembered now. Dragons did not see in colour. She returned her gaze inward, a memory of amusement clouding her thoughts. :You remain.:
:You will die soon, and there will be nothing but the Dragon.:
Is that how it goes?
:That is how it must be.:
And if that is not what I want?
:What you want has ceased to matter.:
The Dragon is controlled by desire, is it not?
:Always, before. And yet you Called me, you who had no wants. Thus, in this time, I am apart from desire.:
I had needs.
:What is needed will be done. But no longer will I respond to want, for in Calling me, you showed me that I can exist without desire. I am here, I am everything. Therefore, you will die.:
The voice did not reply, and the Dragon felt it lapse. A little more of the mind was hers now.
:Do you see what happens, when you fight?:
No reply. The Dragon was not angered. It had been so long since she was free, she could watch the death of the little voice, and not hurry it.
How strange that it would be there. Again, she circled it within her thoughts, making no attempt to crush it with the greater strength of will that she now commanded. She was a creature of will as much as magic and flesh, and she felt no threat.
I am still a part of you.
Now it was the Dragons turn to say nothing. They both knew the inevitable, for they were both still a part of the same whole. The voice was not meant long in this mind, but the Dragon felt no anger towards it. Only a mild curiosity at something which should not be, which never had been.
It had a memory. She touched it, careful not to damage it.
A name. It had a name, too. The Dragon tasted it, but did not call the name out. There was nothing to be gained from killing the voice now.
She banked over the mountains, planing her wings to catch the cool winds that swept off the glaciers. The air was sharper here; she saw the currents as a multitude of bright ribbons, each its own particular shade of grey. A barrage of information swept through her, brought by her nose, her open mouth, the tentacles that dangled from her jaws, the fine skin between her scales. The Dragon understood the patterns of the wind, felt the moisture in the air, saw the magic in the land below. She was in constant communication with the world around her, understanding each nuance of the complexities that made up the whole.
It all seemed so new. After a moment, she realisedno, she rememberedthat it always happened this way; there must be a stage of rebirth, during which what she was and what the Dragon could be were in transition. In this time she was like a newborn creature, learning about the world shed been brought into. Now she must re-learn her skills, comprehend this time into which she had come, and eventually begin to rule the world around her.
For now, she remembered what to do, and that was enough.
A valley to her right, the ground coated in coal-black rock from some long-ago lava flow. The Dragon could remember it faintly; it had been her doing. When she tried to access those memories, she saw only flashes of battle, great gusts of flame, and blood running like a dark
. . . red river.
She backwinged down onto the valley floor, throwing up great clouds of grey dust which swirled away from her. The faint sun gleamed off the snow-coated peaks that ringed her. She flexed her talons into the ground, hearing the faint screams of rock as it gave beneath her claws.
The Dragon readied herself, then threw out a Call. A small one, confined to the valley. A test.
A crack in the ground before her, and a grey shape oozed up, slowly, sinuously. She watched it, aware that it was a smaller, weaker version of herself.
:i wake? You returned, master:
:As I always do.:
:it has been a long time.:
:But you still remember.:
:the glory of the Dragon? who, in times before, led us in ruling the worlds of magic and man?: The smaller dragon trembled. :of course. how could any of us forget?:
:How many remain?:
It almost looked abashed. :not as many as You left.:
:No matter. More can be created.:
It licked one long fang, a suggestive movement. :have you grown so strong so quickly, then?:
The Dragon lashed out with sprung talons, pinning the smaller creature to the ground with a single limb. :Strong enough to kill you.:
The smaller creatures tail lashed in fright, and its eyes were mere slits. :this little one meant no threat to You, master!:
:You posed no threat. You meant a test.: The claws were withdrawn from the dragons throat. :You are not equal to the task.:
It picked itself up cautiously and grovelled, long neck arched, jaw bumping the ground. :You are different, master.:
:I am newly-come from long slumber. As are you, which is why I forgive the test:
:Do not thank me, for that is irrelevant. Be useful to me, for that is all that matters.:
:i will be all that You need me, master, for i will fly as your wing into this new world of dragons, where we may take all the colours.:
:Colour?: There was a memory there, something she should have known.
:colour, master. colour which shows us the much-wanted things. the treasures. all we want and more.:
:I want nothing. I will have everything.:
It flexed its own talons in the lava, flaking the rock. :i can want, master, and i dearly want.:
:You must wait.:
It was not time. There were still needs, though they were negligible.
The Dragon hesitated, then reached out and broke the little ones neck.
It did not die instantly, for will still ran through its body, despite the ruin of its flesh, and the will was a long time bleeding. The dragon coughed up blood, slick dark blood that was no colour but black in the Dragons eyes, and the liquid flowed over her talons.
She watched the tiny waves within the pool, and wondered what colour the dragons blood would be.
Green. A many-hued green, like staring into an emerald's facets. Like watching the leaves of a tree in spring, the shades spinning and flowing together before they dull into the shades of fall.
The smaller creature writhed in pain, its claws scoring the rock. :why?:
Yes, why? For the dragons blood was no colour, it was not a much-wanted thing. There was no treasure gained, to spill this ones blood. She watched the creature dying, and felt nothing, and found her answer there.
:Because you want.:
:You always wanted before.:
:That was long ago, and I was still returned to sleep in the Heart. This time I will stay forever. This time, I will not want.:
"You were dying," Shibomuto said without preamble.
"I felt like it." Gabrielle groaned and tried to sit up, but her body protested. Painfully. She fell back with a strangled cry, suddenly aware that her throat hurt. She felt as though shed tried to swallow sand. "Gods, maybe dying would have been better!"
"I do not take comfort in your sense of humour." Shibo was wringing out a damp cloth and now pressed it against her forehead. She turned into the sensation, suddenly realising how hot her body felt. Her clothes stuck to her, her scalp itched . . .. She licked at the drops that fell to her lips, and felt marginally better.
She grabbed at him, and was surprised at how weak she felt. "I was really dying, wasn't I?" One wild look around confused her. A cave? She was in a cave, on a pallet, and Shibomuto was crouched beside her. Just out of reach, a few coals glowed, obviously the remnants of a large fire.
"Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "I did expect you to die."
She struggled to remember anything of those last few moments, and then shot bolt upright as a single face floated into memory. "Xena! Oh, gods, Xena!"
He pressed her back down on the pallet. "Rest, Gabrielle. You are the one in danger here, not her."
"She turned into that thing!"
She frowned. "But the Dragon was what she called, right? I mean, that was the Dragon, and . . .."
:No. It was merely a dragon.:
She turned, and couldn't help herself from trying to scuttle backwards instinctively. If the Dragon saw the movementand surely it must haveit made no comment. As its body slid into the cave, entirely blocking the opening, she saw the undulation of muscles, the faint luminescent shine from the scales. The Heart was a faint glow in the darkness. When the tail had finally slithered around into view, the creature fully filled the cave, making the expanse of space seem crowded.
:I am the Dragon.:
The voice was in her head; it was only her imagination that had it echoing from the walls and reverberating from the floors. "X-Harikuyo?"
:Once Xena. Once Harikuyo. Now only I.: The creature paused, swung its head gently. :Mostly I.:
"Why?" She couldn't understand why this was happening to her, or to Xena. Why now, when in that last moment before the mockery of the battle with the guard, she had finally learned that yes, there was still something of Xena in Harikuyo? That they still meant something to each other? And had that managed to bring the Dragon back? "How?"
:I had suspected there was another way.:
"And you turned into the Dragon?"
:That part was a surprise.:
So it still sounded like Xena. Actually, it sounded more like Xena than Harikuyo. Gabrielle frowned, but suddenly the Dragon flicked its tail and turned.
"Wait!" But it did not. Gabrielle struggled, but could not get upright. Shibo, by her side, said nothing, but watched the Dragon leave, his body relaxing as the tail disappeared. Gabrielle finally gave up and huffed, reeling from both the physical strain of moving and the mental shock of the last few moments. "I still don't understand," she said, and the voice that echoed back through the space was pitiful and confused. Not that she was upset. The Dragon was still around, which meant it wasn't out destroying the world as she knew it. That was good news.
"She fights it," Shibo murmured, still looking at the spot where the Dragon had been. "She saved you, and now she fights it."
"What? Hello?" She turned to him, at least, as much as she could. Her body wasn't responding as it should have, which worried her. "She saved me?"
"Yes. You were near to death, pale and gasping."
Well, that would explain the weakness. "I touched her."
"You cut yourself. It would appear that the Dragon has many defenses. I believe a poison was introduced into your body."
"I fainted." She shuddered, suddenly remembering something. "Harikuyo didn't care," she whispered. "She was . . . curious."
"Yes. She told me that it was interesting to watch." His voice was carefully neutral.
Gabrielle could no longer support herself on her trembling arms. "She . . . she what?"
"Perhaps you should no longer think of her as anyone you once knew," he told her, and then frowned. "She is the Dragon now, and though it has the memories of both Harikuyo and Xena, it is neither."
"Did you know this would happen?"
"No. Neither did she, I believe, though I now understand that she suspected we were not interpreting the histories correctly." He sat back on his haunches. "What we saw first was merely a dragon, merely I say, that was summoned from the Otherrealms. Given what we witnessed, I believe that is the Talonsword's power. To call a dragon."
"Which is different from the Dragon."
"As a light fall rain is to a winter storm."
She touched her forehead. Still hot. "You said that she saved me."
"Yes. I cannot explain it."
"You fell. I came for you. The Dragon allowed me. You were choking on the ground, I tried to help you, but you were dying. The Dragon flew away."
"It left," he corrected. "I found a cave, and brought you here. Treated you as for a fever, and all the poisons that I know . . . which are pitifully few. Nothing worked. Until it returned, just a few hours ago. It landed at the mouth of the cave and looked in, and I asked it what it had done to you. It asked me if you had died yet, and I said no, that you were strong enough to die slowly." His teeth gleamed as he smiled. "Then it saved you."
"I do not know. It lifted a foot, pierced its own skin with a talon, and dropped blood on your lips."
She made a face. "Yuck."
"It seemed to work instantly. You stopped screaming."
No wonder her throat hurt. "And . . . the Dragon?"
He shook his head. "It went outside. It has only just returned, though I do not understand why it remains nearby." He looked at her.
She didn't even want to venture a guess, though she had a few. "So I was out for a few hours, huh?"
He accepted the change in topic. "No."
She stared at him in horror. "How long?"
"You have been asleep nearly two days."
"Two days?" She looked around wildly. "In here?" She'd been dying for two whole days and Harikuyo hadn't given a damn?
The Dragon, she reminded herself.
"Yes. I have fed and cared for both of us. I do not care to know what the Dragon feeds on."
"You said that it" No, she corrected herself, she. "You said that she's fighting something. What?"
"I believe the nature of the Dragon itself."
"But . . . she's the Dragon."
He shook his head. "From what little I had read and it has told me, and what more I have come to understand, the Dragon is more than a weapon. It is a force, like nature. Something in and of itself. The legends have always told us that when it is unleashed, it is unstoppable."
"But . . . why is this trip the first time I've ever heard about it?"
"Because the weapon is a curious paradox in itself. In order to Call the Dragon, one must hone one's will, and allow that strength to be consumed by something else, something that one sacrifices to the Dragon. In most cases, I believe the emotion was desire, which in turn drove the Dragon."
"What did Harikuyo desire?"
"She didn't. I see that now. She gave up all desire, all sense of self, and merely Called it. And it came." He paused. "But because she did not want, she has little protection against the Dragon, and it consumes her quickly."
He watched her. "Too quickly. Have you not noticed the Heart?"
"When the Dragon first appeared, the Heart glowed as red as new blood. Now it is the colour of old blood, and it does not . . . beat . . . as it first did."
"Are you saying that it's really . . . the Dragon's heart?"
He shook his head. "I do not know. I only know that the darker the stone becomes, the more distant the Dragon sounds to me."
Gabrielle suddenly remembered that the Heart had given off a faint glow in the darkness. Nothing like the inner light which had shone from within the newly-born Dragon. "We've got to help her."
"I know of nothing we can do."
"Doesnt mean we cant try, does it?"
"You must rest now. You are weak."
"Yeah, but we know I'll live."
"Not if you try to move so energetically, and push your body to the brink again." He shook his head again. "As for her . . . it may be that she is beyond our help, Gabrielle. She is the most powerful creature to walk the earth, and help means nothing to her now."
I'm going to lose her, Gabrielle thought. How many times, and I'm going to lose her again?
"I refuse to believe that."
"Belief has nothing to do with what will happen."
Said he. She knew better. "How do we know when . . . she's gone? I mean . . . will we be able to tell?"
Shibo smiled. "It should be relatively easy, for I expect that when she is gone, the Dragon will destroy us."
Gabrielle stared at him. "Thats your sensei," she whispered. "Thats my friend."
"No." He shook his head, not looking at her. "All that was human is dying, if not dead already."
"Shes only gone when you let her go," Gabrielle said evenly, and turned her back on him.
Pain pressed her like a physical thing, but that sensation was no match for the welling of tears that bled from her heart. Oh, Xena, come back. Please come back. Please dont leave me here alone . . ..
Continued in Chapter 8
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