"There are far easier ways to get you to pass over, you know?"
Gabrielle shot Nakthi a look. "Very funny."
The priest crossed his arms. "I was not kidding."
The blonde rolled her eyes. "Look. The less you talk, the harder you work. The harder you work, the faster I can get out of here. The faster I can get out of here, the happier we will both be. So just hurry it up, will ya?"
Nakthi blinked, needing a moment to process the word flow. "Right..." He finally agreed, lighting a candle placed under a small bowl filled with a powerful aroma, which was held suspended over the candle's flame by a small Egyptian figurine with an ibis-shaped head. One of these aroma burners stood on each corner of a wooden pallet placed in the centre of the room, and from all a small trickle of scented smoke was curling upwards. "You know you can take nothing with you except that which is in direct contact with your skin?"
Gabrielle nodded, kneeling down beside her saddlebags and finishing out her sai and the chakram.
"And I have informed you already of the danger of this ritual?"
"I can die," Gabrielle muttered, rising to her feet again after she'd tucked her sai in her boots. "Been there, done that."
Silence fell and lasted a moment as Nakthi sprinkled some powder out over the surface of the pallet. "When I finish this," he finally spoke up, continuing his work, "you must lie down in the centre here. I will then say some incantations and, if the gods are willing, you will lose consciousness and enter a dreamscape, a passage to the afterlife."
Gabrielle managed a half smile. "Dreamscape, huh? I have some good memories of those."
"The passage will lead you to the afterlife you were meant to pass into," Nakthi continued, ignoring her comments. "If you end up in another place than you wish to go to, you will be trapped, and your body will die. If you end up in the right place, but don't leave it within an hour, your body will die."
"How do I get out?" Gabrielle inquired.
"You need a connection to life," Nakthi said, as he finished his task, before reaching up and pulling the thin silver chain of a necklace over his head. "You must wear this."
The blonde reached out and took the necklace, holding it up in front of her. There was a small Ankh pendant dangling at the bottom. "This will bring me back?"
"Back to earth, yes." The priest confirmed, as he reordered some last items. Then he looked up. "Are you ready?"
Gabrielle drew in a breath, squaring her shoulders. "Yes." She walked over to the pallet and was just about to sit down, when a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"When they realise you are gone, they will be devastated," Nakthi said, looking at her quietly. "I don't wish to see my people get hurt."
The blonde released the breath she'd been holding. "I wouldn't have stayed much longer anyway, Nakthi. Your people can protect themselves now. With the soldiers now trained and the watchtowers and palisade, you'll be able to fend off the remaining Romans on your own. You don't need my help anymore."
"Many will not see it that way," the priest stated, crossing his arms.
Gabrielle managed a smirk. "I'm sure you can convince them they're better off this way."
Nakthi agreed with a nod, drumming his fingertips on his bare arm. "What should I tell them?"
"Tell them..." Gabrielle paused for a moment, considering. "Tell them I went home."
The priest cocked his head. "And... where should I say this home is?"
The blonde managed a half smile. "That's what I'm trying to find out," she told him, before she sat down and swung her legs onto the pallet. "Come on, let's get this over with."
She was soaked, she was covered in mud, she was freezing, but she didn't care. Himiko's knees gave way and she limply let herself sag down on her bed. She placed her elbows on her knees and hid her face in her hands, before drawing in a shaky breath.
It was over. The girl squeezed her eyes shut, trying to hold back the flow of tears that was trying to overtake her. It was all over. She'd been clutching at straws and now finally the last one had broken under her weight.
The Kami... The Kami had been her last hope. Her last hope of ever seeing her daughter again. And now she would never....
Himiko's shoulders shook involuntarily and she pressed her hands harder against her face to muffle the pained-filled sound that trickled up from her throat.
"I just want my baby," she whispered between sobs. "I just want to hold my little girl. Why do you hate me for that?"
There was no answer to her question, except for the crackling of the thunder and the sound of the wind toying with the open shutters of the window she had just entered her room through, the wood banging up against the wall of her home with loud hollow thuds.
Himiko sucked in another breath, then pushed herself to her feet, tiredly rubbing at her eyes with her right hand. The noise would alert her grandfather and she couldn't deal with him walking in here right now. So she went over to the window and reached a hand out into the darkness to close the shutters to....
A cry escaped her throat as fingers suddenly wrapped around her wrist in a tight grip. Another hand closed in on her and covered her mouth, to keep her from screaming again. Himiko struggled wildly, then froze as a flash of lightning revealed her assailant to her.
A soaked figure in a muddy, black kimono, whose bright blue eyes remained crystal clear in Himiko's mind when darkness had long returned. "Kami," she whispered as the hand that had been held against her lips dropped away.
"Where's your kid?"
Himiko blinked into the darkness dazedly. The hold on her wrist tightened and drew her just a little closer.
"Where's your kid?" Xena repeated again, clearly pronouncing every syllable this time.
"S..." the girl swallowed. "She's in Hojo. A larger village t... to the west." She could see the white of the other woman's eyes facing in her direction for another moment, then there was a brief movement as the Kami nodded her head, before releasing the hold on her wrist and turning away.
Himiko gazed after her for another moment, then she suddenly regained her senses and hastily placed her hands on the windowsill, hopping out of the window and darting out after the woman. "Wait!" Her feet slipped through the mud, but she managed to catch up. "You... you are going to Hojo?"
The beginning of a smile started to form on the girl's face. "You are going to rescue my daughter?"
"Yes," Xena repeated the same curt reply, then only just managed to suck in another breath as arms wrapped around her and hugged her as tightly as possible.
It was a warm feeling. The gratitude pouring off the young girl before her made her feel... good. And for a moment all the horrid memories became muted and others made themselves known. Moments similar to this one, people thanking her for her help, people smiling up at her gratefully.
"Hey," Xena muttered, awkwardly giving the girl a bit of a pat on the arm. "Come on, quit the mushy stuff."
"Thank you," Himiko said, not letting go of her hold. "Thank you, Kami. I can't ever repay you for...."
"Hey," Xena tapped her on the top of her head, making the girl look up. "I said quit it." She raised a meaningful eyebrow. "Or I might just change my mind."
Himiko blinked, then quickly let go and took a step back.
"Good girl." The warrior muttered, then continued on her way.
She only had a few moments of peace before hasty footsteps caught up to her again. "Can I come with you, Kami?"
Xena released an annoyed breath. "No."
"But you will need me," the girl argued.
"I doubt that."
"You do not know where Genyo's home is. And you do not know what my daughter looks like," Himiko stated matter-of-factly. "I do."
Xena stopped then, and turned to face the girl, opening her mouth, intent on telling her to get lost and....
She met the innocent, trusting eyes gazing up at her and the snarl died on her lips. Instead all that she uttered was a resigned sigh. "You'll have to keep up. I'm not gonna wait around for you."
Himiko beamed a happy smile up at her. "Thank you, Kami."
Xena resumed her course with a look skyward and a slight shake of her head. "I am a wuss," she scolded herself softly.
"What was that, Kami?" Himiko inquired politely as she trotted alongside the warrior.
"Nothing," Xena muttered grumpily. "And stop calling me that."
"Call you what, Kami?"
"That," the warrior growled. "I'm not a Kami."
A frown. "You're not?"
"Oh...." A long pause followed. "What should I call you then?"
"Call me Xena."
"Xena." Himiko repeated, pondering on the odd sound of it, then she cocked her head, glancing up at the tall woman beside her. "What is a Xena?"
Xena shot her a look, then released a breath. "A stupid old warrior with a soft spot for innocent, chatty and highly inquisitive little girls."
Himiko considered this for a moment, then darted a glance up at the warrior, before returning her attention to the road with a thoughtful frown. "Right..."
"Great Anubis, god of the dead, lord of the underworld, I beg you to hear this plea."
Gabrielle listened to the words Nakthi was murmuring as she gazed up at the white ceiling. She was lying flat on the pallet now, her hands wrapped around the metal of the chakram she'd placed on her chest. Doubts of whether she was doing the right thing were now poking at her. Maybe she was mistaken and Xena was fine. Maybe there was something else the warrior had to do first. Maybe she was just a little late. Maybe.... But she ignored them all and settled on trusting her instincts.
"Allow this soul passage to your realm," Nakthi went on. "She has helped your people, the children of Egypt, repel a great evil. Let her pass through your realm now to thank her for her aid..." A pause. "...and so I can get rid of her."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "And here I was thinking you'd softened up there for a moment."
"Shh," Nakthi hissed, waving a hand at her in annoyance. "Be quiet. I'm working."
The bard rolled her eyes, but did remain silent as the priest continued his murmuring, calling on several other gods for assistance. Gabrielle released a tired breath. If I'd known it'd take a dozen gods just to get me across some dumb river and into the underworld I would have just killed myself.
A soft chuckle trickled around her then and Gabrielle's eyes widened a trifle as a small cloud of deep blue entered through the ceiling and slowly drifted down towards her, lower and lower, until it remained suspended just over her head.
The Gods of Egypt thank you for your aid, Gabrielle of Potedeia. A light, melodic woman's voice said. May your passage be safe and your quest successful.
With that the tiny cloud soared down and entered the Ankh pendant lying on her breastbone. From the corner of her eyes she could see a soft blue hue light the metal up, and at the same time she felt it burn lightly against her skin. As she drew in her next breath the vapours rising from the incense closed in on her and entered her lungs, replacing the oxygen and making it hard to breath. Gabrielle didn't struggle but just closed her eyes, letting the darkness fall over her.
The storm had passed over now and the rain had turned into a thick drizzle. Xena crouched down behind some bushes, peeking through the foliage at the gate leading into the walled city of Hojo. She'd found Hojo to be moderately well protected. There were only two gates leading into the city, both of which were guarded by a dozen heavily armed men. The walls weren't too high and she was pretty sure she could have climbed over them without too much trouble, but unfortunately she had a young tag-along to worry about.
As if on cue, Himiko dropped down beside her, panting lightly. "You w..." A breath. "...want to enter t... this way, great K..." The warrior raised a finger at her in warning. "Xena," the girl hastily corrected herself.
"Yes," Xena replied, watching a cart ride up to the city and be waved to a halt, after which the soldiers commenced to check it thoroughly.
"There are many soldiers," Himiko noted, watching the gate herself. "Would it not b... be easier if you had taken your sword?"
"No," the warrior muttered. "Trust me, it wouldn't be."
Himiko glanced up at her. "But..."
"We're gonna get in, get your kid and get out." Xena cut her off firmly. "I won't need a sword."
The girl dropped her head. "Of course."
Xena returned her gaze to the city, drumming the fingers of her right hand on her knee. "We gotta get in there without raising the alarm," she murmured, voicing her thoughts. "That way I can avoid any fighting."
"They will never let us enter," Himiko spoke up hesitantly. "They will see you are foreign, and foreigners are not welcome in Hojo, and they all know my face and the moment they see me." The girl fell silent, dropping her head again. "Genyo will be angry because I managed to escape him."
Xena glanced up. "Escape?"
Himiko nodded. "I found your sword hidden in the earth of the forest after Genyo had chased me to a halt." She peeked up hesitantly. "It saved my life."
Xena met the deep brown eyes for a moment, then she turned a little, facing the girl fully. "How did you do it?"
The girl frowned. "Do what?"
"You brought me back," Xena clarified for her. "I was dead and you brought me back."
Himiko considered this for a moment, then she shrugged. "I don't know... I just... I just wanted your help very badly and... and then you came."
"You're not a god? Not a shamaness?"
"No," Himiko hastily shook her head. "I.... My grandfather wanted me to be a priestess and I have had some lessons." She fumbled with her fingers. "But my tutor said I sucked." She glanced up. "Those were his words exactly. And priests usually speak very eloquently."
Xena managed a small smile at this. "Well, I think, when he sees me, he'll change his mind about you." She ran a hand through her hair. "'Cause whatever gods you prayed to, they sure listened."
Himiko glanced up. "I only prayed to you," she said softly. "I prayed... to the Kami who'd buried the sword for me to find."
Xena frowned, considering this for a moment, then she shook her head a little. "This makes no sense," she murmured softly. "If there wasn't any help, and I didn't come here willingly...."
Himiko dropped her gaze again, staring at the edge of a green leaf intently in the silence that followed. "Are you... are you mad at me? You did not want to be here, I know that. Are you mad, I...?"
The warrior glanced at the bent shape for a moment. "I was at first." She admitted, watching the head bend even deeper. "Being here... hurts... a lot." she tentatively reached out then and placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. Brown eyes peeked up at her hesitantly. "But you just did... whatever you did, 'cause you love your daughter so much." Xena produced a small reassuring smile. "I can't be mad at you for that, now can I?"
The girl blinked at her for a moment, then a tentative smile tugged at her lips.
Xena's smile grew a little in response. "Don't worry," she said, gently squeezing the girl's shoulder. "We'll find her. We'll get her out."
Himiko nodded, squaring her shoulders a bit. "How will we get in?"
Xena glanced at the gates. "You said... they know your face, right?"
"Yes," Himiko nodded again assuredly. "If we walk up to those gates they will capture me."
The warrior cocked her head a bit, then her blue eyes took on a bit of twinkle. "Not if I capture you first...."
"Toson, sir, look at that..."
The head of the guard looked up at the soldier's words and watched as two figures approached through the foggy drizzle, heading straight towards the gates. One was tall and walked with confident steps, the other was much shorter and stumbled along. "Odd," he mumbled, switching his pike to his other hand as he peered ahead. "People walking about here in this weather." He took a step forward, grabbing onto his pike more firmly as the strangers took the final steps up to the gate. "Halt!"
The taller of the two stopped and lifted her head and only now could he see it was not only a woman traveller, but a foreign one at that. "Ah, a man holding a big pointy stick," the woman drawled in his own tongue, only slightly accented. "I feel so threatened."
Toson blinked at the forwardness of this foreigner, then narrowed his eyes at her. "Turn around, woman," he then growled. "You're not welcome here."
"I'm not?" She crossed her arms. "You don't even know what I want yet."
"Whatever it is you need, you will not find it here."
"Ow, I don't need anything," the woman denied with a smirk. "I just want to bring your leader a gift. And make him an offer."
The guard snorted loudly. "And what could you possibly offer the daimyo?"
"I heard his son and a dozen men couldn't even catch a little girl this morning," the woman stated calmly. "Since his own men are clearly incapable, I'm sure the daimyo would be interested in allying himself with my army."
Behind him, insulted voices drifted up.
"And to prove my point..." the woman continued, before she tugged harshly at the strip of cloth she held in her hand, making the smaller woman who'd been following her crash to the ground. "...I brought him a little present."
She reached down and grabbed a handful of hair, then tilted the girl's face up.
The guard's eyes widened. "Himiko," he whispered, before he lifted his eyes and looked up at the other woman. "Who are you?"
A smile. "My name is Xena."
Gasps and murmuring sounded behind him at the mention of the name. "You lie," the commander said. "We have heard the stories. The warrior named Xena died in the battle for Higuchi."
"Did she now?" Xena drawled, placing her free hand on her hip. "Tell me, fellows, have you seen a lot of dark-haired, blue eyed foreigners around these parts lately?"
The guard blinked. "I..."
"Female ones that manage to swipe a girl from her home village without creating so much of a stir?" A pause. "Have ya?"
"Well, there ya go." Xena looked at him pointedly.
"But the stories..."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Fine, believe your stories. It doesn't matter much to me what you think my name is. All you have to know is that I've got your little runaway girl and an offer to your lord, which I'm sure he'd love to hear. So unless you wanna risk angering him and me by not letting me pass, I suggest you step aside. Right now."
The guard looked at her for another moment, then he shot a look over his shoulder. "Eizo. Taisho. Accompany this woman to lord Genyo."
The two soldiers bowed, then waited as their commander stepped aside and made way for Xena and her captive.
"An escort even. Very flattered..." the warrior drawled, before giving a harsh tug at Himiko's bindings.
As they walked through the gates, Xena let her eyes flick around, taking in the area. It was a large town, not as large as Higuchi, but still the wealth was clearly visible in the decorated buildings and the outlines of several temples she could see through the drizzle. A man ran for the shelter of his home, clinging onto the hat he was wearing to keep it from falling off. Except for this one figure though, there was no one on the streets.
She glanced ahead again, watching the backs of the two soldiers pacing in front of her, talking amongst themselves in hushed whispers and darting her looks from time to time.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, then squared her shoulders and called up the part of herself she'd been trying to repress since the moment she'd awoken in the temple.
The warrior in her flared up immediately as it was released. She felt her heartbeat pick up. Blood coursed into her legs and arms and made her hands tingle.
It only took one quick move, in which she grabbed onto both heads and slammed them into each other with brute force. Before either man could even produce a groan of pain they both sagged unconsciously at her feet.
Xena stood towering over them for a moment, breathing heavily. Then she grabbed onto one hand of each man and dragged him into the shadows of the city wall, before she turned around, taking a few paces back to Himiko's side. "Hands," she ordered, and the girl hastily lifted her bound wrists.
Xena unwound the cloth and turned away from the girl again, kneeling beside the two men.
Himiko glanced about her to see if anyone was coming, while she rubbed her left wrist with a hand, massaging the pained flesh. "Could we not have done without the bindings?" She asked unhappily, seeing the red marks through the dim light.
"I had to make it look real," Xena muttered, gagging one of her victims with a bit of the fabric.
I should just kill them, a part of her reminded herself, but... Xena tied another strip of fabric tightly around his wrists. She couldn't. Even the brief fight with the two soldiers had stirred her memories again and she had to work hard now to suppress them once more. Killing, holding a weapon even... she couldn't handle that, not right now.
"We have to hurry," she told Himiko as she straightened again, leaving both men bound and gagged, hoping that would give them enough time. "Where's your kid?"
"In Genyo's home," Himiko told her, pointing towards a nearby building in the direction the soldiers had been leading them.
"All right..." Xena nodded, then headed in the indicated direction.
But she found herself stopped by a touch on her elbow. She half turned, raising an eyebrow sharply at the girl. "What?"
"Is it true?" Himiko inquired softly. "That you are the warrior who fought at Higuchi?"
Xena released a breath, then nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, that was me."
Himiko considered this for a moment. "Then you lied to me."
Dark brows frowned at her. "Excuse me?"
"You are Kami," Himiko told her, then bowed her head slightly in reverence.
"B..." Xena glanced at the girl, then at the bound guards, then she just released a tired breath. No time to argue with the stubborn kid now. "Whatever." She turned around and headed towards the large building in the distance. "Let's just get this over with."
Himiko hastily trotted after the warrior. "Yes, Kami."
Xena uttered a groan in defeat.
Gabrielle blinked as the brightness that had consumed her faded slowly. After a moment her eyes adjusted to the amount of light around her and she took in her surroundings for the first time.
It was a field, endless it seemed. There were large trees which provided shadow from the daylight and there were small, trickling streams passing through the landscape.
All in all it would seem like a fairly pleasant place to be. Gabrielle frowned. But something was wrong. She could feel it, like an unpleasant tingle down her spine.
A light brown leaf drifted down from a tree next to her, a gust of wind carrying it sideways to fall at her feet. Gabrielle stepped over it, her eyes flicking around attentively. People were sitting around, looking rather lethargic. A girl was huddled against a tree, gazing ahead of herself unhappily, a bit of parchment with a half finished drawing lying forgotten at her feet. A dog whined unhappily.
The blonde walked on, crossing a small bridge, a glance down showing green algae clinging to some of the rocks in the soft current. Gabrielle frowned at all the little signs of imperfection, before looking back up again. "Xena?" she spoke the warrior's name, not too loudly, feeling uncomfortable breaking the dense silence around her. "Xena? Are you here?"
Movement caught her attention as a figure sitting on the embankment straightened a bit, trying to catch a glimpse of her. Not Xena, but... Gabrielle walked closer with hasty paces. "Akemi."
"Gabrielle," Akemi managed a smile, but then her eyes turned sad. "You... You are dead?"
"No, no." The blonde lifted a hand, hastily denying. "A priest helped me cross over." She settled down next to the other woman. "Xena didn't come to me this morning. I'm looking for her. Is she here?"
"She didn't come to you?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
Akemi dropped her eyes sadly. "I thought as much. But I hoped still..."
The blonde frowned. "Akemi, what's going on?" She waved a hand at her surroundings. "What's wrong here?"
The other woman closed her eyes for a moment, then she looked up. "Xena said... she... she heard voices. Calling to her."
"Yes," Akemi confirmed. "She asked me if I heard, but I did not. And then..." the woman bent her head in shame. "S... Something happened. Forces pulled her from here. She asked for my help, but I..." she swallowed. "I didn't know what to do."
"Forces pulled her?" Gabrielle leaned closer, anxiously. "Who? What forces?"
"I don't know," Akemi admitted sadly.
"This is it," Himiko pointed, from their hidden position covered in darkness by the branches of a large tree, to an illuminated window on the first floor. "This is where they keep her."
Xena glanced up, noting the absence of bars on the window. "She's guarded?"
"There are guards in front of the door," Himiko confirmed, glancing up anxiously.
"Right," Xena nodded a little, judging the distance to the window for a moment, then glancing up to the branch above her. "Well... good thing we won't be using the door then, hmm?"
Himiko frowned. "What are y...?" Then her eyes widened as Xena hopped up and grabbed onto the tree's branch, swaying back just once before she gracefully curled herself around the limb, ending up crouching on the wood. "Ah... I see."
"C'mon." A hand reached down from the foliage. "Grab on."
"I...uhm..." she tentatively lifted her hand. "I feel you should know I'm afraid of... aah!" she squealed as Xena's strong grip easily lifted her off the ground and onto the branch beside the warrior. "...heights," the girl finished, daring to peek down, but regretting it the moment she did. She hastily faced forward again. "Oh my..."
"You'll be fine," Xena insured her absently, peering past the girl at the nearby window. She straightened, balancing on the branch expertly. "All right." She reached down a hand. "I'm gonna have to carry you for a bit."
"Uhm... OK." Himiko allowed herself to be helped to her feet, leaning heavily on Xena for support. The warrior wrapped an arm around her shoulder and then bent down and lifted her feet off the ground gracefully, cradling her as if she weighed no more than a feather. Himiko cleared her throat uncomfortable. "Can't I... Can't I just walk?"
"You can walk, sure," Xena confirmed, measuring the distance to the end of the tree-limb. "But can you jump?"
Himiko frowned. "Jump? What do you mean ju..." Her eyes widened as Xena suddenly started running forward, the branch veering under their combined weight. "Oh you're not gonna...? I mean, you can't just...?"
"Shut up and hold on, or I'm gonna drop you like a brick." Xena growled at her.
Himiko hastily bit her lip, then hid her face in the warrior's shoulder as they reached the edge of the branch and Xena pushed off, pulling them both into a flip.
The world twirled around her chaotically, the wind rushing against her, a few splatters of rain impacting with her cheek as they broke clear of the protection of the foliage. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter, reminding herself of why she was doing this. Her daughter. She was saving her daughter.
The flight ended abruptly. Xena's feet impacted with something solid and moments later she was lowered to the ground. Her knees almost gave way and she hastily grabbed onto the warrior's shoulder for balance. As she blinked open her eyes the room was swaying. The motion slowed through until she could make out a tiny figure in front of her, scrambling to her feet.
"Mama!" the toddler called out, then pattered over as fast as her little feet could carry her.
Himiko let go of the supporting shoulder, her dizziness forgotten, and scooped up the child running towards her in delight, lifting her up and hugging her tightly against her. "Shhh... You have to be quiet, Iyo."
"Mama, mama, mama..." the girl warbled happily, pressing her face into her mother's shoulder. "Missed ya. No go no more. Kay?"
Himiko sniffled, doing her best to suppress her tears. "Never again, sweetie," she murmured, rubbing the girl's back. "Never again. I promise."
Xena let her eyes flick over the room. It was huge, especially for a child this small. There was a small bed with colourful blankets and bright tapestries decorated the walls. There was a chest in the corner, the bright green, dragon-shaped head of a stuffed animal poking out from under the lid.
There was something seriously wrong with this picture. This wasn't the sort of accommodation a child being held captive by an evil warlord was supposed to get. The warrior frowned. What was going on here?
Right at that moment an inner door opened and an elderly woman stepped in carrying a small tray filled with deliciously smelling food. "I brought you some food, little o... Aaah!!"
With a clattering of china the tray was sent crashing to the ground.
Xena cursed under her breath, then hastily grabbed onto mother and daughter and swooped them both up. "Time to go."
The outer door opened now too and two soldiers came storming in.
"Quick!" the elderly woman urged them on, pointing at Xena. "They are taking lord Genyo's daughter!"
Blue eyes widened, then shot down to meet Himiko's. "Genyo's daughter???"
The girl shot her an apologetic look. "I... I can explain..."
"Ow, for the love of..." Xena breathed, then quickly ducked as a dagger came soaring towards her head. "This is great." She hopped backwards, landing on the windowsill, then turned and tossed herself out the window. "Just great."
Iyo let out a cry, wiggling in her mother's grasp, reaching her hands back towards the window. " Saban!"
"Shh, be quiet, sweetie," Himiko tried to shush her, but Iyo kept wiggling restlessly.
"Back! Need Saban!"
Xena landed on the branch, only just managing to keep her balance as she compensated for the toddler's motions. "Who the Hades is Saban?"
Himiko glanced up, biting her lip just a little, clearly feeling rather guilty now. "It's uhm..." she cleared her throat. "Her stuffed toy."
"Ey lady!" Iyo, poked a tiny finger at Xena's shoulder. "Go get Saban!"
"Iyo!" Himiko grabbed for the girl's hand hastily. "Be quiet now. We have to run. We can't get Saban."
The toddler blinked, her eyes going watery. "No Saban?" A pout. "Is sad."
Xena met the sad gaze for a moment, then released a breath. "Ow just quit it." She put the two down on the branch. "What does it look like?" She asked impatiently.
Himiko blinked at her. "It's uhm... it's lying on the ground where she was sitting. It's green and..."
Xena didn't bother to listen to the rest of the explanation, taking two steps and launching off, diving in through the window. She landed on her hands, then shoved off again, slamming her feet into the face of one of the soldiers, going with the motion and ending up standing with one foot on each side of his head. She punched him in the nose, just to be sure he wouldn't be getting up again, then only barely managed to duck under the blade of a sword as the other soldier attacked her. She rolled sideways, ending up near the spot where Iyo had been sitting.
She scrambled up, meanwhile grabbing for a tattered green animal she'd spotted from the corner of her eyes, then she darted back across the room, wincing as the tip of a sword grazed the skin of her upper arm.
One, two steps and she was flying again, out the window and towards the branch where she'd left her two burdens. She landed solidly on the wood, making it sway just a little.
Himiko grabbed onto the bark of the tree, finding some support there as she focused very hard on not looking down.
"Saban!" Iyo cheered, reaching out both her hands towards the toy Xena had just rescued. "Good!"
Xena closed the distance between them, lifting the animal up in order to hand it to the girl, then frowning as her eyes took in the tattered toy. "A frog?" She looked up at the toddler. "You sent me back to rescue a frog?"
"Fog!" Iyo confirmed. "Gimme!"
The warrior shot a look skyward. "Just... perfect."
"Peffet!" Iyo agreed enthusiastically, grabbing for her toy and hugging it close, then looking gratefully up at Xena. "Love ya."
Xena gazed at the kid for a moment, then rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah..."
A horn was sounded from the palace and Xena responded, reaching down and picking Himiko, her child and the stuffed frog up. "That explanation of yours?"
Himiko blinked up at her. "Yes?"
"It'd better be really, really good," Xena growled as she dropped out of the tree, voices immediately yelling out around her, countless footsteps rushing closer.
Gabrielle released a breath, her mind spinning around the information Akemi had given her. "Who could take Xena from here unwillingly?" she voiced her thoughts out loud. "A god?" She shot a look at Akemi. "Your people worship gods, right?"
"Not gods," Akemi denied. "At least, not exactly. It's..." She considered how to explain for a moment. "The Kami, they are... spirits. They are the spirit of things that are admirable, of things that people pray to, worship. So, there is a spirit in the winds, and one in the rain. The sun. The beauty of the flowers in spring. But Kami are also the spirits of those who died heroically. Who are remembered, talked of." The woman glanced up. "Xena is Kami."
"Xena is Kami?" Gabrielle repeated, thinking. "What... What does that mean? I mean, is she more powerful, or...?"
"Kami have a stronger connection to the world of the living." Akemi explained. "Because she is Kami, Xena can spend time with you. She can cross the border between life and afterlife." A pause. "Kami can... be called upon. When the living pray to a Kami it can choose to listen and go down and aid this person."
"You think that's what happened? That Xena answered someone's plea?"
"If she did, it was not willingly." Akemi shook her head. "I... I have never heard of a Kami being forced. But if such a thing is possible, the one to have called on her must have tapped into a very, very great power."
Gabrielle considered this. "Where do you think she is?"
"All I know is that she is not in the afterlife." Akemi waved a hand at their surroundings. "If she were this would not be happening."
"If she's not in the afterlife..." Gabrielle murmured. "...then..."
"She must be on earth," Akemi finished for her with a nod.
Gabrielle released a breath. "I... I have to go find her..." She pushed herself to her feet. "She's in trouble. I can feel it..."
"I don't doubt you can," Akemi replied with a small smile, as she too rose to her feet. "You have a strong connection. If you trust in that, I don't doubt you will find her."
Gabrielle nodded a bit, then turned and wanted to head off, but before she could, a hand touched her shoulder.
"Gabrielle," Akemi started, hesitantly. "You... You have looked around you, haven't you? This world, it's falling apart without Xena here. If she doesn't return before the dawn of the third day..."
Gabrielle dropped her eyes. "I understand."
"I know you do," Akemi stated, gently squeezing her shoulder. "Your head, it knows. But you and I... we listen to our heart, don't we?"
Green eyes peeked up at her, insecurely.
Akemi lowered her voice. "If you can find a way, to keep her, release her from this... than take it." Deep browned eyes bored into her, imprinting the words. "This place..." Akemi waved a hand at her surroundings. "It numbs. To make being here pleasant, it numbs the hurt and the longing. But..." the woman looked pained. "...but it cannot numb the echo of the guilt I feel for having been the cause of her suffering." She touched the blonde's cheek. "And yours."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I... I have never seen her happier than in these last few months. She finally got her redemption. She's happy. And therefore... so am I."
Akemi shook her head a little. "Redemption is rarely found in death."
Gabrielle frowned, and was just about to ask what exactly it was the other meant by this, when she felt a soft burning where the Ankh pendant she was still wearing pressed against her skin. The metal glowed just slightly, a warning deep red. "I..." she glanced up again. "I think my time is up. I have to go."
Akemi nodded in understanding.
"Thank you for your help," Gabrielle managed a smile, before she turned and walked off. "Goodbye Akemi."
Akemi watched her go, watched her fade away until she had disappeared from the afterlife completely. "Good luck, Gabrielle," she murmured, before she seated herself again, pulling up her knees and laying her folded arms on top. "I fear you'll need it."
"More fast!" Iyo chortled in complete delight. "Go, go!"
Xena dug her heels into the horse's flanks again, pushing it forward. She'd kicked a soldier off his stallion, hopped on and, with the toddler held in place in front of her and Himiko clinging desperately onto her waist, she'd urged the horse on, rushing out through the gates before any of the soldiers could stop her.
And now they were racing over the small path of a dense forest, Xena steering the horse left and right to slip past the trees at the highest possible speed. The horse was breathing heavily, his breath rasping audibly with every thump of his hooves. It was hard to hear anything over the noise, even for the warrior, and she couldn't bother to glance behind her for fear of impacting with a tree. "Are they close?" she yelled to the woman seated behind her, then waited, but got no response. "Himiko?"
The stallion hadn't noticed a small pothole in the road and he stumbled, but just managed to stay on his feet. Xena heard a soft squeak behind her, as her companion pushed her face even tighter against her shoulder.
The warrior released a breath, then her eyes flicked down for a moment, seeing the child seated in front of her gazing up at her with wide, excited eyes. "You doin' okay there?"
"Goooood!" the girl chortled enthusiastically. "Hossie good. Go fast good!"
Xena smirked at this, in spite of the crappy situation. "Glad you're enjoying yourself. Iyo, was it?"
The girl nodded.
The warrior tightened her hold on the child, lifting her up just a bit higher, so she could peer over her shoulder. "You see any more horses behind us there?"
"Hossies?" Iyo peered over. "Yes. Tiny hossies."
"Good," Xena lowered her back down again, patting her back in silent thanks.
So she'd managed to put some distance between them. Xena considered her situation for a moment. When the forest cleared, as she remembered it soon would, they could speed up even more and make it to the village of Onaka before Genyo's men could catch up.
But then what?
Xena released a breath, forcing herself to focus on the here and now. She could see the last line of trees up ahead now and the wooden palisade of the village behind it. She aided the horse through with some small motions of the reigns and her heels, then pushed the animal into a full gallop.
It wasn't long before they thundered into the village, the inhabitants stopping and looking up in surprise as they did.
Xena pulled the horse to an abrupt halt. "Close those gates!" she ordered, nodding her head towards them as she picked up the toddler in front of her, swinging her leg over the horse's head and sliding to the ground.
The men and women in the square blinked at her, not understanding what the commotion was about.
Xena released a breath in frustration, any hold on her temper now lost completely. "Fine!" she snapped. "If you want Genyo's entire army to waltz in here in a matter of seconds, just leave the blasted doors open!"
There was a moment of shocked silence, then the villagers started running around, some just in wild panic, others actually heading for the large gates.
Himiko slid off the horse as well, landing on the ground a little unsteadily. Xena handed her the child.
The girl bent her head. "Kami, I..."
But Xena didn't let her finish, roughly turning away from her without a word, heading for the palisade.
Himiko released a breath, closing her eyes for a moment. What a mess this was. What a mess... She bit her lip. And it was all her fault.
"Mamma?" A tiny hand touched her cheek and, as Himiko glanced up, she saw concerned brown eyes peer back at her. "Y'okay?"
Himiko managed a small smile at this. "I'm fine, sweetie."
Iyo wasn't buying a word of it, clearly, her brows puckering in thought. "You got owie?"
Her mother pushed back a lock of her long, black hair. "A little..." She admitted.
The toddler responded to this by wrapping both her arms around her mother's neck and hugging her as tight as she could. Himiko exhaled, closing her eyes and letting her cheek rest on top of her daughter's head, tightening her hold on the girl as well.
Yes, this was a mess. And yes, it was her fault, but...
"Luv ya, mamma."
But she'd do it again in a heartbeat. "I love you too, sweetheart." She whispered, as she kissed the top of her child's head. "I missed you."
Meanwhile, Xena had climbed on top of the small palisade and peered out. The men that had pursued her had halted and were now waiting, probably for Genyo himself to catch up. More and more riders and now also soldiers on foot entered the small clearing before the village.
The warrior swallowed, her eyes darting around restlessly. There were so many. So many soldiers. And this village... She shot a glance over her shoulder, to see the fishing town's inhabitants standing huddled around, looking up at her with wary and anxious eyes.
This village had no soldiers at all. All that stood between these people and Genyo's army was this feeble wooden wall and...
Xena closed her eyes, letting the soft drizzle patter against her eyelids as she ran both her hands through her soaked, disordered locks. There was no way out anymore. She was trapped in this blasted village and she was out of options.
With a growl she smacked the palm of her hand against the wooden structure she was standing on. "Damn her," she cursed under her breath. "Damn that girl."
"What is going on here?!" A voice boomed over the square, and Xena turned around to see an elderly man walking out of one of the small houses. His cane sank into the muddy ground with each pace and Xena could see the effort it took for him to keep on walking by the strained muscles that were standing out in his arm and neck.
Himiko turned around as she heard her grandfather's voice.
"Grappa!" Iyo cheered, as she spotted the older man as well.
Matsuo stopped dead, his eyes widening as he took in his granddaughter and the child resting in her arms. "You..." he swallowed, his mouth having gone dry. "You took her from Hojo?" he continued then in a whisper, a dangerous deep vibration tainting his voice.
Himiko bent her head. "Please understand..."
"I don't understand!" Matsuo yelled, waving his cane about in anger. "Do you have any idea how hard I've worked to keep the peace here?! Do you have any idea how ha... aaah!" He staggered back a pace as a dark figure landed beside him, bright blue eyes peering at him through the drizzle.
"Hi," Xena crossed her arms. "You the leader here?"
The older man sucked in a breath, trying to regain his composure. "Yes. Yes, I am. And you are?"
"Xena," Xena introduced herself.
"She's Kami, grandfather," Himiko added, attempting to explain. "I prayed to her to help me save Iyo and she came."
"I am not Kami!" the warrior snapped, turning towards the girl. "You know what I am? I am very pissed off and tired of being used by little Japanese girls, that's what I am!"
"Ey!" Iyo pointed a threatening finger at Xena, her eyes narrowing. "No yell at the mamma!"
Himiko closed her eyes for a moment, considering, then she turned pleadingly to a woman standing a few feet away from her. "Could you take her to my room, please?" She asked softly. The woman nodded, then stepped forward, squeezing her shoulder in supporting before she took the struggling infant.
"Wanna stay with mamma!" Iyo objected as she was dragged off. "Leggo!"
Himiko watched her until she had disappeared out of sight, then she turned back to Xena, a determination in her eyes the warrior had not seen there before. "Please don't yell at me in front of my daughter." The girl said, in a calm voice. "I understand you are mad..."
"Mad?" Xena said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. "Mad?! Now why would I be mad?!"
"We can still undo this," Matsuo said, his fingers stroking his beard, a gesture which radiated worry. "We... We can just give him back the child and..."
"I won't." Himiko shook her head determinedly.
"No way," Xena agreed, shooting the older man a look. "I did not come back from the dead and sneak into some town to save some kid and her frog so I can just hand her back over now."
"The child is Genyo's daughter," Matsuo replied angrily. "You had no right to take her from him."
"Yeah, well, I didn't know at the time the kid was his, now did I?" The warrior shot back, annoyed, then looked pointedly at the girl beside her. "Since someone forgot to mention that little detail..."
"Genyo took her from me," Himiko retorted sharply. "He has no claim on her."
"If she's his daughter he sure does," Xena snapped back.
"What were you thinking?!" her grandfather joined in.
Brown eyes flashed at them in anger. "I was thinking of how he raped me!"
A dead silence fell around her and she realised the entire village was listening to what she had to say. Normally, that would have mattered to her, but now... "I was thinking of how he raped me and how I gave birth to a child all alone, because everyone who knew, looked at me like I was infected with something. I was thinking of how, when he came here and took MY child, no one even made a sound."
Her gaze drifted over the crowd for a moment. When she turned back her grandfather had diverted his gaze. Xena was looking at her, her eyes widened in genuine shock. Himiko sucked in a breath, then forced herself to continue, in a softer tone. "I... I'm sorry I used you. I didn't want you to get involved in all this, I really didn't, but I... I love her and I need her." She straightened her shoulders just a bit. "And I'm not giving her up. I'll die before I see him hold her again."
With a vicious shifting of air a dozen fiery arrows flew into the village. Some dropped into the muddy earth, the flames extinguishing in the wet soil with a hiss, others thudded into the wood of a few huts, allowing the fire to spread.
Xena's head shot up in reflex as the first arrows fell, then her eyes flicked back to Himiko. The villagers panicked around them, yelling and running around frantically, but Xena ignored them, gazing into the pained, dark eyes. Himiko stared back at her, then finally dropped her head as she tried to hide a tear trickling down her cheek.
Halfway down her cheek the tear was caught by a fingertip. "I'm sorry," Xena whispered, her voice slightly hoarse. "I shouldn't have yelled."
"It's okay," the girl said softly. "You couldn't know."
The hand dropped to her shoulder, squeezing gently. "I..." A pause, then: "Come on... Let's go fix this mess, huh?"
Himiko looked up at her. "How?"
Good question, Xena admitted quietly, but she realised she could hardly tell the girl she had no clue whatsoever of how to get through this. So instead she just squeezed the girl's shoulder again, before she turned and headed for the palisade. A woman came running by, screaming in panic, and Xena reached out and grabbed onto her arm, forcing the woman to look at her. "Running around is not going to put the fire out. Water is. So why don't you get some?"
The woman gazed at her with wide eyes for a moment, then realisation seemed to dawn and she nodded hastily.
Xena let her go, then paced on, ascending the steps to the top of the palisade once more. Several men were standing there already, gazing anxiously out over the clearing. Xena followed their gaze, to see a line of archers stringing their bows again for a second attack. All the way to the left she could see a younger man seated on his horse, the bit of light that filtered through the light grey clouds reflecting off his golden armour. Xena narrowed her eyes. Genyo.
"You see now?" Matsuo spoke up from behind her. "There are too many. We can never win. We must submit."
The order to fire was yelled and the archers obeyed, another rain of arrows flying into the village. Instincts not tested for several months flared up instantly and Xena felt herself reaching out without so much as a thought, her hand closing over the shaft of an arrow as it tried to pass her and pulling it to a premature halt. Just a bit in front of Matsuo's forehead.
The older man gazed at her with wide, shocked eyes. "You... You are Kami," he finally murmured, bending his head in respect.
"I told you, I'm not Kami." Xena growled under her breath, before returning her gaze to the mounted figure. "Just pissed off." She swung her arm back and lunged the arrow forward with all her force.
With a snap it embedded itself in the earth just before the hooves of Genyo's horse. The animal reared in fright and the young man could only just keep himself from falling off. "What the..." His eyes shot up and focused on the walls of the poor excuse for a village he'd foolishly spared for so long and he saw a woman standing there. Tall. A foreigner. The wind blowing back her dark hair and the edges of the dark kimono she was wearing. He reached out and grabbed onto the collar of a soldier standing beside him, lifting him several feet off the ground. "Is that her?" He growled, pointing the index finger of his free hand at the figure above the gates.
The soldier looked in the indicated direction, then nodded hastily.
Genyo growled in anger, dropping the soldier to the ground negligently, before raising his voice. "I want the foreigner's head!" he roared. "And the head of Himiko. Bring me either and you will be well rewarded." He reached behind him and unsheathed his sword. "Attack!"
Gabrielle shielded her eyes as she was sucked in again by a bright, white light. For a moment she felt like she was drifting, like a feather toyed with by a soft breeze, then she was drawn down, lower and lower, faster and faster until....
She gasped in a breath, her eyelids flying open. The sunlight of the quiet field was replaced with the muted light of a small lantern, which was swaying gently from left to right. The blonde lifted a hand, pushing her torso up a bit with her other hand. She was in a small room, with only a hammock and a desk, surrounded by wooden walls. "Nakthi?" she called softly, as she placed her second hand on the ground as well and started to rise to her feet.
She could only grab for the edge of the desk just in time as the floor suddenly tilted up, then fell back down again. Gabrielle blinked, then tried to stand again, with the aid of the sturdy wood. There was a small circular window right in front of her and, as she peeked through, she realised why it was the floor was moving.
A boat. She was on a boat. Gabrielle absently ordered her dishevelled locks with a hand as she walked over to the window with unsteady paces, then peered outside.
Tiny drops of rain created small circles on the water's surface. It was still daytime outside, but the light was dimmed by grey clouds. In the distance she could see the outline of a village. A thin trail of smoke rose up from between the homes.
Gabrielle touched the glass, tracing the edges of the small houses with a finger, thoughtfully. The dreamscape must have allowed her to travel here. She'd used it, like Xena had once before, to get to this place.
But where was this place?
"Come on, hurry up!" A voice shouted outside. "Turn this thing around!"
Gabrielle took another glance out the window, then headed for the door, pulling it open and stepping onto the deck.
The drizzle blew against her face. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the soft rain, following the voice she'd heard until she found who she guessed was the captain of the ship. He was a middle aged man with an Asian appearance, lightly coloured skin and shoulder length black hear.
"Hey!" she quickly stepped up to him, grabbing onto his shoulder. "Why are you turning away?"
The man spun around, taking her in for a moment in complete confusion. "Who are you? We did not take any foreign passengers on board."
"I just dropped in," Gabrielle told him impatiently. "No time to explain." She pointed a finger at the village in the distance. "Just tell me what's going on."
The captain hesitated for another moment, looking rather suspicious, then he decided telling her couldn't hurt. "Onaka is under siege. I'm turning back." He crossed his arms. "And I don't care who you are, but you're either gonna pay the fee for the trip to the next village, or I'm gonna toss you off my ship."
Gabrielle looked past him, at the village in the distance, then she squared her shoulders. "Don't bother. This is my stop," she told him, before she sped up and ran towards the side of the boat, hopping onto the railing.
She glanced at the cold water churning below her, then exhaled heavily. "DÈjà vu," she muttered, before she let herself fall forward, diving into the waves without a second thought.
The captain gazed after her with wide eyes, then he shook his head, as if to clear it. "Foreigners," he muttered, before turning back and continuing shouting orders to his crew.
Xena jerked a man to his knees with a harsh tug on his arm. The arrow aimed for his head passed by within an inch of him. He blinked, then looked up at his saviour apologetically. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
"...to nearly get shot, I know." Xena finished for him, grabbing onto a wooden block as she peeked over the palisade, aiming and then tossing the projectile at a soldier rushing closer, the wood hitting him square in the forehead and sending him tumbling unconsciously to the ground. She took the moment to survey the battlefield before her, wincing as she saw a dozen of Genyo's men carry over a large tree trunk, clearly intent on using it as a battering ram. "Damn it." She grabbed onto the young man's shoulder. "Get down there, block the gates!"
The boy looked up hesitantly. "With what?" he asked. "We've already chopped most of our furniture to bits to throw at them. What can we use?"
"I don't care," Xena snapped impatiently, shoving him towards the steps leading down the palisade. "Chop down a tree, break down the houses, use your mother, I don't care! Just get those gates blocked!" She grabbed onto another wooden block and tossed it into the frenzy below, managing to hit one of the trunk's carriers in the leg, slowing the men down for a moment. "And hurry!"
She watched the boy scramble off from the corner of her eyes, leaving her with the few dozen men and women she had hastily lined up along the top of the palisade. The rest of the villagers were gathering rocks and other things they could use to throw at their attackers and she'd sent a remaining few towards the docks to gather as many boats as possible to use as a means of escape, in the case their defence failed.
Which was very likely, Xena had to admit, as she aimed a rock at an unprotected back. Sticks and stones might break a few bones, but they were no match for the swords and arrows Genyo had.
More shouting came from down below and she now spotted several ladders and long ropes being carried closer, Genyo intent on using his superior numbers to attack the village from all sides at once.
She muttered another curse, then raised her voice. "They're gonna try to climb up over the walls! Get ready!"
The men and women around her looked up, then nodded in understanding, arming themselves as best they could.
"They're gonna be protected by the archers. Watch out when you take aim," she warned them, just as the first of the ropes was tossed up and wrapped itself around one of the palisade's support beams next to her.
Xena hastily scrambled closer, reaching over the wall and grabbing onto the rope with one hand, while she lifted her other to catch an arrow aimed for her neck. A man was clambering up the rope and she waited just a moment, until he was halfway, before using al her strength and tugging the rope upwards in one quick move.
The soldier yelled in surprise as he suddenly lost his footing against the wall and was flung upwards. He looked up, trying to identify his enemy, but before he could a fist slammed full into his face. He lost his hold on the rope and fell backward, head first.
The sound of his neck breaking sounded louder to Xena's ears than any of the battle noises around her. She gazed down at the man from her raised position, her fingers clenching around the rope, the white knuckles standing out sharply against her skin.
He was dead. She'd killed him.
She'd killed him.
A loud thud brought her back to reality, as Genyo's men started pounding on the gates with their tree trunk. She swallowed, closing her eyes for just a moment, pushing back the haunting memories and the pain and focusing on the mess at hand. She loosened the loop at one end of the rope from the palisade, then took off, swinging the rope in a circle above her head, once, twice, before letting go. The end wound around a pole just left of the gates. In one fluent motion she jumped up and dived over the palisade, right towards the soldiers standing outside the gates.
Before they realised what was happening she'd slammed her feet against two men and elbowed a third out of the way. She let the rope swing her back up again, bringing her behind the protecting wall, as several arrow thudding into the wood behind her.
She landed a few feet from the gates. Two men passed by, breathing hard as they moved the trunk of a freshly cut three over, and Xena quickly got her shoulder under the rough bark, helping them along. "Brace it against the wood," she instructed. "Dig the other end into the sand right there."
The army outside roared in anger at the village's stubborn defences. Genyo's voice screamed another order and the next moment another wave of arrows flew into the village.
A woman screamed as one of the arrowheads thudded into her shoulder, the fire on the burning tip greedily eating at the thin fabric of her kimono. Without a second thought the warrior left the gates behind and rushed closer to the woman, who was now running around in panic, the air fluttering by her encouraging the flames even more. "Hey, hold still!" she called out, but the woman was too frantic to listen to reason.
A few more steps, then Xena dived forward, catching her around the knees and sending them both tumbling to the ground. Hastily she shrugged her hands back inside the long sleeves of her own garment, then pressed the fabric of her kimono against the flames, effectively cutting off the supply of oxygen.
Xena shot a look over her shoulder, finding Himiko standing behind her, having rushed over to help as well. "I need some water."
The girl nodded hastily, then darted off, returning only moments later with a bucket of water. She fell to her knees beside the warrior. "What should I do?"
"You need to cool those burns," Xena instructed, ripping open the tattered remnants of the woman's sleeve to reveal a large bright red mark. "Just keep pouring water over that. It'll ease the pain."
Himiko nodded, then did what Xena had told her to.
The warrior faced forward to find the woman she'd just rescued gazing up at her with wide, fearful eyes, too shocked yet to feel the pain of the burns the fire had left in its wake. "It's gonna be okay," she said, in an attempt to reassure her.
The reassurance had little effect though since a loud yell sounded from the walls, followed by a crash as one of the villagers was tossed from the palisade and tumbled into a stack of branches. Xena looked up just in time to see a first attacker swinging his legs over the palisade while a second effectively deflected a rock aimed for his head with his hand, before pulling himself up further as well.
It's too late, Xena's mind deftly informed her as she numbly gazed at the scene, all hope now lost. These people, they'll all be killed. Because you failed. Because you...
The next moment something spun by her, splitting the air with an all too familiar sound. It slid the first soldier's neck, then ricocheted off the forehead of the second, before heading back to its owner.
And it found her, as Xena's hands closed over the ring and pulled it to a stop on pure instinct. For a moment she just stared at the weapon in her hand, feeling the coolness of the metal against her palm.
Gabrielle gazed at the back of the dark figure up ahead, who had just whisked the chakram from mid air. At the black hair, gently blowing in the wind, at the strong back, the broad shoulders.
It couldn't be. It couldn't possibly be.
"Xena?" she whispered, barely audible even to her own ears.
The figure in front of her spun around instantly though and faced her.
And Gabrielle just stood there, staring, unable to move. She was dreaming. Surely she was dreaming. She would probably wake up soon, and realise that none of this was real. That this was just a figment of her imagination and...
The figment let the chakram slip from her grip and started to move forward, towards her. Unable to resist, Gabrielle took a step forward as well, then another and another and then she was running, hoping against hope that maybe....
She collided with a solid body and immediately wrapped her arms as tightly around it as she could, burying her head into the soaked black fabric of a kimono. Arms slipped around her in return, holding her close in a hug that was filled with so much emotion she could hardly breathe.
"Gods," she managed hoarsely, as her senses were suddenly overwhelmed with everything that meant Xena to her. The feeling of muscles shifting under her touch, the rasp of her breath, the smell of her damp skin and then the sound of that voice.
"I am so glad you're here," Xena choked, squeezing her even tighter, needing the comfort of the bard's presence as the chaotic world around them dropped away until it revolved only around the two of them. "I wanted you to come here. I wanted you here so badly."
Gabrielle felt tears well up. She pulled back just a bit, looking up into the bright blue eyes now only inches away. She lifted a hand, shaking fingers touching the skin of her friend's cheek as if in wonder. Xena leaned into the touch, closing her eyes and swallowing. "You're alive," the blonde breathed.
Xena just nodded.
The warrior's eyelids fluttered open, looking down at the bard, lifting a hand and gently stroking back a lock of blond hair. "I... I'm not sure," she croaked. "I... everything's been so twisted, and I..." her touch trailed down Gabrielle's cheek. "I... I so desperately needed you here." She just repeated, at a loss for words, leaning her forehead against her friend's.
Gabrielle sniffled back a sob at the words, her hands shifting and cupping Xena's face. "I love you," she murmured, rubbing her thumb over a teardrop that trickled down the dirt-stained skin.
"I love you too," Xena replied, tangling her fingers in the blond hair. "I love you so much."
A throat cleared uncomfortably just next to them and Xena exhaled shakily as the real world slowly filtered back in. She forced herself to look up, to see Himiko standing beside her, looking rather embarrassed and just a bit confused. "An uhm..." the girl considered her words for a moment. "A friend of yours, Kami?"
Xena couldn't quite repress a smile at this. "Yeah," she confirmed, before facing Gabrielle again. "Yeah, this is my friend." She pressed a kiss against the bard's forehead, then laid her cheek against the blond hair, soaking up the familiar touches and smells and letting them heal the deep cuts she'd suffered through from within. "Best friend."
An arrow thudded into the ground just next to them, startling Himiko and sending her staggering a pace back. Gabrielle's eyes shot down at the arrow, then up at the wall, then she pulled back a bit and met Xena's gaze. "What's going on?"
"We're under attack," Himiko explained before Xena could, darting a fearful look towards the palisade.
Xena opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again, knowing explaining this situation would take quite a bit more time than they had right now. "It's uhm... complicated..."
Gabrielle shot her a look. "What did you do now?"
Both eyebrows shot up in insult.
The bard laughed softly at the typical gesture, then hugged Xena to her again, revelling in the touch for just a moment, before letting her go. "OK, fill me in," she said, circling Xena and heading for the walls. "What's the plan?"
"Plan?" The warrior muttered, then shook her head. "Oh, right... We're uhm... We're tossing stuff at them."
Green eyes peeked over a shoulder. "Excuse me?"
"We have no weapons," Himiko joined in, quickly running after the two. "No soldiers. This is just a fishing village."
Gabrielle glanced at the girl, then reached down, picking up the chakram as they passed the weapon Xena had dropped to the ground. "And lemme guess? There's a huge well-equipped army outside those gates, right?"
Himiko blinked up at her, amazed. "How did you know?!"
The bard snorted softly. "Just a wild guess."
Gabrielle was the first to reach the palisade and she quickly mounted the stairs, crouching down when she reached the top. "Gods..." she breathed, seeing the number of soldiers below, some now again attempting to climb up towards her. "This isn't good."
"No, it's not," Xena agreed as she knelt down beside her. "There's too many."
The bard exhaled, in an attempt to clear her mind. She decided to handle first things first and with a flick of her wrist she tossed the chakram to her left, watching it smack against a pole and then heading back, effectively slicing through several ropes and ladders, cutting the latest assault short. She caught the weapon deftly, then focused her attention on the rest of the field, taking in the various attacking parties. "They're tossing everything they've got at us," she concluded. "That means his defences are low."
"You want to attack Genyo?" Himiko asked, studying the blond beside her in great interest.
Gabrielle glanced at the girl huddled beside her, then nodded. "Sometimes offence is the best defence." She looked over to her other side at Xena. "Right?"
Blue eyes looked up, a turmoil in the depths of them Gabrielle didn't quite understand. "Right," the warrior managed a smile, before she faced forward again. "Right."
The bard frowned, then decided whatever it was could wait, before turning back to Himiko. "Xena and I can circle around and get behind enemy lines. Who's in charge here?"
"My grandfather," the girl informed her. "But his health is failing him and... I think it all became too much for him. He collapsed. They took him to his room."
Gabrielle nodded. "OK... Can you hold the fort here then?"
Brown eyes widened, blinking. "Me?" Himiko said, clearly shocked at the request. "I'm not... I mean... I can't just... I'm just..." A pause. "Right?"
Gabrielle smirked at this. "You'll do fine." She glanced back at Xena, then shifted and faced her fully, holding out the chakram. "Here. You'll probably need this."
Blue eyes turned to her, then shifted down and gazed at the chakram. A moment, then Xena shook her head. "No, I uhm..." she managed a smile for the bard. "I'm fine. You hang on to it for a while."
Gabrielle frowned just a little, cocking her head. "You sure?"
Another half hearted smile. "Yeah, positive. Haven't used the thing in ages. I'd just toss it wrong and cut my own head off."
"Xena, you'll need a weapon," the blonde argued.
"Kami, your sword," Himiko suggested, as she got herself over the shock of being promoted to leader by the warrior's friend. "It's still in the temple. Do you wish for me to get it for you?"
Xena glanced at the girl, then at Gabrielle, then she shook her head. "No uhm... You just stay here." She raised herself up a bit. "I'll get it myself." She grasped Gabrielle's shoulder, meeting the green eyes for another moment, before she headed back down the walls.
Gabrielle watched her go with a frown. "Something's wrong with her."
"It must be hard to walk the earth, when you've seen paradise," Himiko said softly, following Xena's form as well.
The bard turned to the Japanese girl, cocking her head, considering. "I guess so," she agreed, before shaking herself out of her pondering and glancing around, taking in the villages defences. "What's your name?" she asked, while continuing her surveillance.
"Himiko," Himiko introduced herself, bowing her head respectfully.
"I'm Gabrielle," the blonde returned. "And while Xena's off, you and me might as well work on improving these defences a little."
"How?" the girl inquired, studying the woman beside her. "As I said, we're not warriors."
"No," Gabrielle agreed. "All fishermen here, right?"
"Yes." Himiko nodded. "Some of the very best."
"Well then..." Green eyes turned to her, twinkling just a little. "Let's get these people doing what they do best, shall we?"
To Be Continued in part III
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