Night had fallen, but this was not enough of an excuse to rest. Haru stood quietly on top of a small hill, looking down at the field in which the soldiers had gathered and were now ordering their supplies and preparing for transport tomorrow. His shoulder-length hair was being gently blown back by the soft breeze.
Genyo had ordered only very few to stay behind, and before him was nearly the entire army of Hojo. So many men. Haru ran a hand through his dark locks, closing his eyes for a moment. He'd walked among them just now, making preparations, and they had been confident. Too confident, maybe, encouraged by Genyo's self-assured attitude and his claims that defeat was impossible with an army this size. The samurai shook his head sadly. Genyo knew too little of battle to realise victory did not lie in the number of men fighting, but in the strategy used and the skill of the warriors.
The majority of the men now cheerfully laughing below would not return home tomorrow. Haru knew this for a fact. They would die in battle. And for what? Revenge?
It wasn't about the child, about Genyo's daughter. Genyo didn't care about the girl, he'd kept her in her room the entire time she was here, had only assigned her a nanny when she wouldn't stop crying. Maybe, if the child had been a son, he would have been interested, but a girl meant nothing to him, and was only valuable as a pawn to be sacrificed to obtain power.
No, it wasn't about the child. It was about the child's mother.
Haru smiled, just a little. A remarkable woman, Himiko. One of the few who dared defy his Lord, in spite of what he'd done to her. He himself had been away when she was first captured, on a journey to the field where his father had died. It was something he did every year, to honour his father's memory. Had he known what Genyo was doing in his absence however, he would have not made the journey that year.
She'd already escaped again by the time he returned. It was only much later when he first saw her, as she crawled over the outer wall and into the city, in her attempt to rescue her daughter.
He'd been impressed by her bravery. Trying to sneak into a fortress such as Hojo undetected was nearly impossible and the girl surely knew what the consequences would be if she'd get caught. Still, there she was. He had watched her as she crept through the darkness, her small, slender frame outlined beautifully in the gentle moonlight.
The samurai's head shot up, to find Genyo standing at his side. His lord was dressed in light armour, a sword strung across his back. Haru inclined his head, but only a fraction, finding himself incapable at this moment to address the man properly.
"What were you smiling about?" Genyo inquired gruffly.
"The past," the samurai replied, facing forward once more, his face emotionless once more.
His lord crossed his arms. "What about the present?"
"It matters little to me."
Genyo huffed out a breath. "You don't understand the gravity of the situation."
"Probably not," Haru agreed quietly. "I am only a warrior." He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Have you spoken to your father? Obtained his approval?"
Genyo squared his shoulders a little, folding his hands behind his back. "No."
The samurai frowned, then turned his head to look at the young man beside him. "He is the Daimyo. You need his approval to..."
"My father is dead."
Haru stopped in mid sentence, his mouth half open, frozen in shock. "How?" He managed. "He wasn't ill."
Genyo couldn't quite keep a smirk of his face. "It happened rather... suddenly."
Haru stared at him for a long moment, his eyes slowly filling with comprehension, soon followed by disgust. "You murdered our father?"
"No," his lord denied easily, clearly not too upset at the accusation. "That warrior came. The woman with the blond hair. When I walked into my father's chamber I saw her flee through the window."
"You lie." The samurai returned immediately, his eyes darkening. "She has honour. It wasn't her."
"Whether it was her or not matters little," Genyo replied, smiling fully now. "What matters is the determination of my army to fight tomorrow when they hear what our enemy has done."
Haru gazed at him for a long moment, with a look of total horror. Then he turned briskly and started pacing back to the palace with determined strides. "Goodbye, Genyo."
Genyo frowned, then his eyes widened a trifle and he hastily set in pursuit. "Haru, no! I forbid it! You will not escape fighting tomorrow!"
The samurai kept walking, not bothering to look back.
"You belong to me now! I am daimyo!" Genyo grabbed onto the other man's shoulders , spinning him around. "Obey me!"
Their eyes met and Genyo found a determination there he had never seen before. He'd been approaching this the wrong way, he realised. He purposefully let his eyes soften and his voice falter. "We were brothers once."
Haru dropped his head, closing his eyes. "That was long ago."
"It was my father who made me leave. Who sent me away." Genyo continued. "He made me who I am. But now that he has passed on...." He gently squeezed the samurai's shoulder. "I can change things, Haru. But I need your help."
Haru's eyes lifted. "If it is change you seek, then prevent this battle."
"I wish I could," his lord said, regret in his voice. "But if I call it off now, my men will think I'm weak. The people will think I'm weak. They will all revolt against me and thousands will die. You have to join me, Haru," he pleaded. "The lives of my people lie in your hands."
Hesitation crept its way onto the samurai's face. "Thousand of lives?"
"Yes," Genyo nodded firmly, balling his hand to a fist. "Fight for me, Haru. As you did for my father and will for my children."
Haru stared at the fist numbly, thoughts swirling through his brain like restless gusts of wind. It was likely revolts would follow if the people thought Genyo weak. Genyo was right, thousands of people would die if he took his life now. The same people his father had fought for all those years. Had died for. By choosing to escape his responsibilities, he would condemn them.
He glanced up, studying the man in front of him. And what of Genyo himself? Could he change? Now that his father's influence was gone? Perhaps this was a chance to make Genyo see the error of his ways. Did he, Haru, have the right to let it pass by? Was it honourable to forsake one who had once been like a brother to him, at the time when he was needed most?
Haru released the breath he'd been holding, then he inclined his head towards his Lord. "I will need to see to the horses, if they are to be ready for tomorrow."
Genyo watched the samurai walk past him, back towards the army. As his eyes shifted from Haru's back to the village of Onaka, only barely seen in the distance, a feral smile slowly spread across his face.
"No deeper, this is good."
One of the men digging the large trench in the centre of the road looked up, confused. His whole upper body protruded above ground level. "But Kami, it cannot be deep enough yet. A man will be able to climb out of here with ease."
"That's the point." Xena darted him a smile, then extended a hand down, helping him out of the pit. "We're gonna need some thick beams to place over this hole. I want an army to be able to march over it without knowing it's there."
The man blinked at her for another moment, then shrugged. "Whatever you say, Kami."
The warrior gave him a pat on the back, then glanced up and watched as a big wooden square dangling by a rope was being pulled up into a treetop. One side of it was covered with leaves and branches, which would make it undetectable once it was up there. "Good job," she complimented a woman kneeling on the ground, decorating a second square. The woman looked up, smiling at the compliment.
She was nervous, Xena realised. All of the people here were. But at the same time there was a sense of enthusiasm, of hope. Their chances were, Xena had to admit, not that great. Gabrielle had gathered some information about the size of the army they would soon face and it outnumbered them three to one. But in fact, the difference was greater, since Genyo's army consisted of trained troops, skilled warriors that could easily take down several of the villagers before they themselves could be overpowered.
If this battle was one measured by strength, they would lose hopelessly. Xena let her eyes track past the several traps that they were working on as she wandered down the path. So she had to make this a battle of wits. Of trickery. If they could surprise Genyo often enough, they had a chance to come out of this alive.
Alive. She let the word echo in her mind for a while. Was that really what she wanted, to survive this battle? To what end? To just... die afterwards? When she had to return to the afterlife, to redeem the souls that were suffering now, in her absence?
Xena walked from the path, taking a shortcut through the forest as the road swung to the left and disappeared around the bend. A strong voice spoke up from nearby now, explaining how a specific combination move with a staff could take out an opponent in less then five seconds.
Xena stopped as she neared the road again, leaning against the bark of a tree and watching the large circle of men and women, all clustered around Gabrielle, listening attentively. The area was illuminated by just a few torches. The forest provided enough cover to hide the light from other eyes and the smoke blew away unseen into the dark night.
"All right, I'm gonna need a volunteer now."
Xena chuckled under her breath as immediately the whole circle took a pace back from the blonde. Apparently Gabrielle had demonstrated her staff skills several times already and her students were far from willing to get dumped on their butts.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Ow, come on. You're gonna get hit a few times tomorrow. You might as well get used to it now." She glanced from one person to the other, but still no one stepped forward. She tossed up a hand in defeat. "Fine." She pointed to a young man standing closest to her. "You. C'mere."
Xena could actually hear the man swallow.
"Okay, now..." Gabrielle balanced her staff in both her hands comfortably. "Like I explained, to take someone down with this move, you'll have to hit him here." She gently tapped her staff against the side of her victims knee. "And then you shift your weight to your other foot and bring the other end of the staff up and you hit him right here." She pressed the tip of the staff against the young man's breastbone. She then glanced up and let her eyes circle the group inquisitively. "Everyone clear?"
The man in front of her nodded rapidly, preferring his encounter with the tip of Gabrielle's staff to be as short lived as possible.
"Good." The bard slowly brought her staff back so she was balancing it in her hands once more.
Her victim released the breath he'd been holding, relieved he'd escaped a beating at his tutor's hands. He was just about to turn around and walk back to his spot in the circle, when....
"So when you execute this move it should look something like this."
A sharp pain shot through his left leg, pushing him completely off balance. His eyes shot up, wide, and met twinkling green orbs just before...
The blow against his chest sent him flying backward, literally. For a moment his feet were freed from the ground, then he hit the earth again with deafening force.
Moments later he found himself lying flat on his back, his arms and legs spread out, staring up at the dark sky above. "Ouch," he managed to murmur.
Xena chuckled, watching the whole scene in utter amusement.
"You think it's funny?"
The warrior turned her head, grinning as she saw Himiko walk up to her. "Yup."
"She is killing my people."
Xena faced forward once more, watching as Gabrielle walked over to her victim, extending her hand down to him to help him back to his feet, explaining how, if she'd hit him much harder he would have stayed down. Permanently. "Yup," the warrior smirked wickedly.
Himiko shook her head a little, but smiled nevertheless, stepping up beside the warrior and watching the training as well. "She has taught us a lot in so short a time. She is a good teacher."
Xena laid her head against the bark of the tree she was leaning against. "She's a good... everything."
"It is true she has many talents." Himiko nodded in agreement. "Before she started the class, she told a story of how she learned to use a staff and kept hitting herself in the head. It was very funny." The girl laughed softly at the memory. "Your friend is truly a gift to the world, Kami."
The warrior's eyes quietly followed the blonde as she moved through the circle, gracefully, her bare feet not making a single sound as they touched the sand. The torchlight highlighted strands of golden hair and the flames were reflected in the bard's eyes, the irises a beautiful deep green in the dim light.
She would drag Gabrielle down with her this time. If she died, her friend would follow. She seemed sweet to many an outsider, but Xena knew all too well she had a stubborn streak the side of the Aegean, and when she set her mind to something, she would pummel every one that stood in her way senseless and achieve what she wanted to achieve.
If Gabrielle wanted to come with her, to the afterlife, she would. No matter what. There was nothing Xena could do to prevent that, except....
The warrior turned her head, looking down at the girl standing by her side. "Himiko?"
Brown eyes turned and met hers. "Yes, Kami?"
Xena drew in a breath, squaring her shoulders perceptively. "I'm gonna need your help."
All her students tactically diverted their eyes, some absently kicking at the sand, others fumbling with the edges of their kimonos.
Gabrielle exhaled gravely, letting her eyes slide from one to the other to find herself another victim, until...
A grin tugged at the edges of her mouth. "Hey! Xena!"
The warrior looked up from her conversation with Himiko, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
The bard crooked a finger at her.
The blue eyes took on a playful twinkle. Xena spoke a few more words to the girl standing beside her, who nodded in response before jogging off, back in the direction of the village. Then she walked from the cover of the forest and onto the road, the circle respectfully splitting as she stepped closer, allowing her entrance. She shot a look at a man standing nearby, who quickly got the message and handed her his staff.
A few more steps and she was standing in front of the blonde, towering over her by nearly a head. "Decided to pick on someone your own size, did ya?"
"Size doesn't matter," the bard replied with a charming smile. "It's the skill that counts."
Xena chuckled, twirling her staff around a little, trying to get a feel for the weapon. "So... What's are you planning to do with me, oh woman of great skill?"
"I'm gonna dump you on your butt."
The warrior snorted, clearly not impressed. "You can try."
Gabrielle slowly started circling her opponent, her fingers gently caressing the wooden surface of her staff. "You don't know this move yet. I thought it up just now."
"You could think up a thousand moves and you're still not gonna floor me."
The blonde smirked wickedly. "We'll see." She purred, then she struck out in a flash, slamming the edge of her staff against the warrior's fingers. She moved the other edge up and rammed her weapon against Xena's, successfully dislodging it from the woman's grasp. To complete her move she dropped to a knee, letting her staff swing downwards and towards her opponents unprotected legs.
Her staff hit only thin air however, as Xena jumped back at the last moment. Gabrielle looked up to see the warrior perform a perfect backflip, reaching out and snatching her staff out of mid air, before landing back on the road with a little bounce, turning around gracefully and taking on a defensive position.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Show off."
Xena grinned broadly in response.
Gabrielle turned around to face the young woman behind her. "Yes?"
"You said this would work for sure. It didn't work."
The bard rolled her eyes. "Yeah well, backflipping is not the typical response of a normal opponent." Almost absentmindedly the bard raised her staff, catching a lunge aimed for her head. "Unfortunately, Xena doesn't really classify as normal." She half turned, swinging her staff back, Xena jumping back only just in time to keep the wood from impacting with her side.
"You saying I'm special?" The warrior laid a hand over her heart. "You're so sweet."
"Sweet huh?" Gabrielle twirled her staff around expertly, as she searched for another opening. "How's your hand?"
"Bruised," Xena admitted easily. "How's your ego?"
Gabrielle responded to this with a lunge at the warrior's side, which Xena fended off just barely. The warrior countered quickly though, Gabrielle only just able to hold her ground as she parried blow after blow.
This was another one of those things she'd missed so much. Gabrielle found a delighted smile tugging at her lips as she ducked under another powerful strike. Sparring with her partner was something she had always enjoyed, in spite of the many bruises she usually ended up with. She winced as Xena's staff found her upper arm, left unprotected after one of her miss hits. Like that one.
Xena wasn't up to full speed this time however, Gabrielle knew, as she rolled away just in time to avoid getting smacked in the head. She was still great, of course, but there were little things that showed she hadn't been at this for quite a while now. Her blows were less powerful than they had been and she wasn't as quick as she normally was, leaving tiny openings in her defences.
Like an unprotected left kneecap for instance. Gabrielle expertly avoided wood once again, then slammed her own staff against the warrior's knee. In reflex, Xena shifted her weight to her other foot, compromising her balance. Gabrielle immediately went in for the kill, dropping her staff and diving forward, catching her partner around the waist and dragging her down.
She ended up on top of the warrior, pinning her arms down, Xena's staff lying a few feet away. She grinned victoriously. "What was that about my ego again?"
"Just that you shouldn't let things get to your head," Xena replied easily, before she neatly headbutted the blonde.
Within moments the roles were reversed. Gabrielle looked up at the warrior with narrowed eyes. "That was not fair. You have a harder head."
Xena chuckled wickedly, then let go of her friend, neatly hopping back to her feet, before extending a hand down. Gabrielle took it, allowing herself to be pulled upright. Enthusiastic murmurs drifted up around them, the bard's students clearly impressed with their little display.
Xena dusted a bit of sand off her friend's shoulder. "Good show."
"You weren't bad yourself," Gabrielle replied, giving the warrior a pat on the side. "How's your knee? I didn't hit you too hard, did I?"
"Just hard enough to make sure it'll turn a nice blue shade tomorrow." Xena reached down and touched the spot, wincing a little. "Wish I wouldda had armour on though."
Gabrielle glanced down at the dark head. "I uhm... I might have something for you," she said, just a touch hesitantly. "But I'm not sure you're interested."
Xena glanced up at the blonde, then rose to her feet fully again. "What are you talking about?"
Gabrielle looked at her for another moment, then turned and motioned for one of the girls in her group to step forward. She nodded in response and hastily reached behind her, picking up a package, wrapped in a thin piece of cloth. Gabrielle half turned towards her, taking the bundle from the girl, then she faced the warrior once more. With one hand, she removed the bit of cloth, exposing the contents to her friend.
Xena inhaled sharply. She stared at it a moment, then she reached out, caressing the dark brown leather with tentative fingers.
"I asked Himiko where she found your sword," Gabrielle's voice drifted up. "I figured,... maybe you wanted the rest back too."
The metal of the breastplate warmed instantly to her touch. She traced one of the swirls with her thumb.
"I mean, you don't have to... If you don't want..." Gabrielle fell silent as a finger was placed against her lips.
"You are very effectively ruining the moment," Xena told her, with a smile to take the sting out of the words. Then she reached out for the bundle in the bard's hands. "Gimme those."
Gabrielle handed them over without another word.
The warrior glanced down at her old armour, then up at her friend. "Guess I'd better go change."
The leather felt cool against her warm skin. She'd found a secluded spot, not too far from the road where the others were gathered. There was a small pond at the centre of a clearing, which barely reflected the soft moonlight.
Xena straightened the leather absently. It was weird. Comforting in a way, like she could just step back into a life that hadn't been hers for months now, as if nothing had happened. And at the same time... it was just weird.
Xena reached for a bracer, sliding it onto her arm. She hadn't even thought of it, of her armour. Maybe because, in the back of her mind, she'd figured her time here, back in the world of the living, would be short and she wouldn't need it.
The warrior finished with her second bracer, then reached down and picked up her breastplate. Now however, things were different. It wasn't just about her anymore. She placed the armour over her chest. It was about Himiko and her village. She let the breastplate slide into place. It was about Gabrielle.
Her armour secured, she glanced down, the cold, black surface of the pond reflecting her own darkened image back to her. Xena swallowed, staring into her own eyes, which were a haunting pitch black. The water rippled, just gently, and as it did, the scene before her changed and she saw a younger version of herself, standing amongst the remnants of a burning village. Her hands soaked in blood. Laughing.
She closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath, forcing herself to stay calm.
The warrior half turned, finding Gabrielle standing at the edge of the clearing, watching her. She produced a smile for her friend. "Hey." She lifted her hands, indicating her leathers and armour. "So... What do you think?"
Gabrielle crossed the distance between them, the sound of her feet on the sand only barely audible to even the warrior's ears. When she stood before her, Gabrielle reached out and, almost reverently, stroked a bit of the leather covering her stomach. She looked up again, a warm smile lighting up her face. "You look perfect."
Xena smiled back, the bad memories forgotten in the bard's presence. "Doesn't fit as snugly as it used to," the warrior pinched a bit of leather and pulled it away from her skin. "Guess that's what you get when you don't eat for six months, huh?"
Gabrielle snorted softly. "If that's a subtle hint for me to bake you some cookies, it's not working." Xena produced an utterly sad pout in response, but was only rewarded with a gentle slap against her side. They both laughed, then, after a moment, Gabrielle sobered again. "How do you feel?"
Xena exhaled heavily, leaning her head against the bard's. "Odd." She felt Gabrielle's arms slide around her through the thick leather, a feeling so familiar it nearly brought tears to her eyes. "There's uhm... mixed emotions."
The bard nodded softly. "You don't have to wear this. A man in the village is making some light armour for me. I'm sure if you asked him, he would..."
"No," Xena cut her off. "This is just... facing part of my past, again. I can't run away from that anymore."
Gabrielle pulled back a little, looking up at the dark head. "You never ran from your past, Xena."
"I did," the warrior objected, turning away and walking back to the water's edge, staring down at her own reflection. "I mean, that's why this is happening now, right?" She waved a hand at her head. "The visions, the voices. I went to some sort of heaven and I didn't deserve it. And now whoever brought me back is..."
"It was love."
Xena stopped, glancing over her shoulder. "Excuse me?"
"I was watching Himiko before. She was playing with her child and..." Gabrielle drew in a breath squaring her shoulders a little. "Akemi told me whoever called on you must have tapped into a very, very great power. And we assumed it had to be something like magic, or godhood. But what if it wasn't? What if Himiko just loved her daughter so much, loved her grandfather, her people so much, that she could give you life."
Blue eyes studied the bard insecurely. "You're saying...I was brought back by an emotion?"
"I know it's mushy." Gabrielle smiled, just a little. "But isn't love the reason why we came back from the dead before? You came back from Tartarus for me. And I came back that time in Thessaly, for you. It was Eli's love that brought us back, after the Ides of March."
Xena faced away from her again, shaking her head. "It can't be that simple."
"Think about it," the blonde insisted. "How can it be something bad that brought you back, when all you've done so far is save a child?"
"I started a war in the process."
"You helped to start a revolt against a tyrant," Gabrielle corrected. "These people here are now finally standing up for what they believe in. That's a good thing."
"Is it?" the warrior turned around fully. "Is it, no matter what happens tomorrow? No matter how many people die?"
"They all know the risks, Xena." the blonde stated calmly. "These people here, they know they might die tomorrow." The bard laid a hand over her heart. "I know I might die. But this is about more than death. This is about the greater good. I'm willing to die for that. And so are they."
Xena dropped her head, glancing down at the leaves under her feet. "I know. I know it's their choice. But..." she shook her head a little. "I just have a bad feeling about tomorrow. I guess I'm just... afraid. Afraid the plan won't work. That I'll screw up." A light shrug. "I haven't done this in a while."
They both fell quiet, then finally Gabrielle spoke up. "Do you regret it?"
The warrior raised her head. "Regret what?"
"Being back," the bard clarified softly. "Do you regret you were brought back?"
Blue eyes studied her silently, then the warrior lifted a hand and laid it against her cheek. "No." Fingertips softly caressed her skin. "No, I'm not."
Gabrielle smiled, leaning into the touch happily. "Whatever made this happen... It was something good, Xena. I know it was." She absently traced a seam of the warrior's leathers. "And whatever happens tomorrow will be good too."
"I have never attempted such a thing," an older man, dressed in an Saifuku, a formal costume of the Shinto priests made of pure white silk, rubbed his chin, pensively. "On first glance, I would say it is impossible."
"I know it must seem that way," Himiko said. "But I am sure you would have thought a Kami returning to earth an impossibility as well."
"This is true," the kannushi admitted, folding his hands together and leaning his elbows on the table he was sitting behind. "Her return puzzles me." He glanced up, shooting his visitor a pointed look. "Especially since she seems to have been brought forth by you, Himiko. My worst student."
The girl released a breath. "Believe me, you are no more surprised than I am." Brown eyes glanced up, meeting the priests with a willpower he had not seen in her before. "But the fact is she did come, and she helped me when I needed help most. And now she has asked me for aid." The eyes turned pleading. "If there is a way, I must find it. To repay her for her kindness. To repay them both."
The kannushi seemed to consider her words for a moment, then he inclined his head. "I cannot make any guarantees, but I will do my best."
Himiko smiled at him warmly. "Thank you," she said, then she turned and headed for the door, intent on continuing with the tasks that needed to be finished for the morning.
She stopped and turned, eyeing the priest inquisitively.
The older man rose to his feet, circling the table. "I have heard your grandfather has passed his leadership onto you."
The girl bent her head, eyeing the trodden earth under her feet. "You have heard correctly."
The kannushi nodded, as he stopped before her. "Good."
Himiko's head shot up at the words. "Good?"
"You make a lousy priestess, my child. You are stubborn and unyielding to rules that have been lived by for centuries." The older man smiled. "I believe these are the properties that will make you an excellent leader."
The girl blinked. "You... you do?"
"Yes." A pause. "Clearly, the Kami are with you." The kannushi placed a hand on her shoulder." Your choices today have been just. And knowing you, I believe they will continue to be so."
Himiko swallowed, the kannushi's faith in her both surprising and overwhelming her. "Thank you," she repeated again, not knowing what else to say.
"You're very welcome, my child." The priest squeezed her shoulder gently, then he turned and walked back towards his desk, pulling open one of the drawers and starting to remove several scrolls. "Go now, do what you must. I will do my best to aid your Kami."
Himiko gazed at him for another moment, then she bent her head reverently, before turning and leaving the room.
A slight breeze shifted by her, chilling her skin as she exited the kannushi's home. Himiko closed her eyes for a moment, drawing in a deep breath of the cool air. It brought with it a sense of reality. A sense of reality she so desperately needed in this moment, in which her life seemed to be stuck somewhere between a dream and a nightmare.
She started moving again, towards her home, only a few blocks away. The streets were silent, most of the village's inhabitants having joined the Kami and her friend, preparing for tomorrow. Only a few had remained. An older man sat in a chair in front of his house, staring up at the star-filled sky. As he heard her pass, he glanced down for a moment, giving her a respectful nod. Himiko smiled back as she walked on, turning another corner. Through an open window she could hear the sound of a song, a lullaby, sung in a woman's melodic voice.
Himiko went on pensively, as the song drifted around her. That woman, in there, rocking her baby to sleep... Would she still be doing that tomorrow? Or would she be dead? Would her child be dead? Be dead because she couldn't...
She sucked in a breath and slowly released it. The kannushi had said this was right. The Kami, her friend, they all believed it was right. Jappa was a land of war. Of warlords and samurai. And if you wanted to get a point across in this land, if you wanted to show men of battle that they were wrong, tradition required you pummel them senseless.
Violence seemed embedded in the soil of this island, and it fed on the souls of its inhabitants, thriving. And tomorrow, she would let it feed on her.
Was that right? Was freedom worth giving up your soul for?
The door to her home opened with a gentle croak. She stepped inside, the sound of her feet touching the rough wooden floor only barely audible. The livingroom was dark. No candles were lit, but this wasn't surprising, considering what time it was. She carefully sought her way through the darkness, trying not to trip over the sparse amount of furniture as she headed for her room.
The moon shone in through the window, the bleak light falling on the bed, where a small shape was tucked in tight under the covers. Himiko smiled warmly at the sight of the sleeping child, and she carefully approached the bed, seating herself on the edge, making the surface under her move just slightly. Iyo mumbled something around the thumb she'd stuck in her mouth, but didn't wake up. Himiko carefully reached over and pushed a lock of dark hair out of the girl's eyes.
What would happen to her baby if she died tomorrow?
Himiko closed her eyes in pain as the questions arose. Of course, she'd already thought about this before, and spoken with Nene. The woman would take Iyo with her if things would go badly tomorrow. No matter what the future held, her daughter would live to see it.
But she didn't want her daughter to just live. She wanted her to be happy. To be happy, and carefree. To just be a child. Something Himiko had been denied, by the early death of both her parents and by the constant threat of invasion.
She realised that she would have to make the same decision her father had to make many years ago. She'd never known her father, really. She'd been too young when he died to remember the way he looked. She only vaguely remembered his voice, a pleasant baritone, and she remembered being lifted up in his arms and they'd spin around faster and faster. She remembered laughing. She remembered loving him.
She'd been told one of the rivalling warlords had come to their village, and demanded resources from her father. Food, cattle, weapons. Valuable things for a small village like theirs. And her father had realised that giving up these things not only insured a long harsh winter for his people, but that they'd also be submitting to the rule of a warlord. They'd loose their independence, their freedom.
So he'd refused. He'd decided to fight. And he'd died.
And for many, many years, she'd hated him for that. For making her mother cry and cry and cry until she couldn't cry anymore. She hated him for leaving her. Oh, how she'd hated him.
Himiko gently reordered the dark locks scattered on the pillow. The odds were against them. Even with the Kami's help, Genyo still outnumbered them greatly and his warriors were all skilled men. There was a good chance they'd lose. That she'd die. That her daughter would grow up alone. And that she would hate her mother for leaving her.
Was it right? Was it right, to risk her daughter's happiness? No matter how good the cause, could it ever justify risking that?
Himiko was dragged from her pondering by a soft pained sound. The child was twisting under the covers, trying to shake them off. Himiko could follow the restless movement of her eyes under her eyelids. Another pained sound, then a barely audible: "Mama!"
"Shhh..." Himiko gently stroked her daughter's cheek. "It's okay, sweetheart."
A moment, then deep brown eyes blinked open, the pupils dilated. "Mama?"
"I'm here," the girl confirmed with a smile, then she barely managed to suck in another breath as tiny arms wrapped around her waist and Iyo hugged her as tight as she could. "Hey? Sweetie, what's wrong?"
"Bad man," Iyo mumbled, pressing her face tightly against her mother. "Take me way gain."
"Bad man?" Himiko soothingly rubbed the child's back. "Who..." A pause. "Genyo?"
She felt the child nod. "Daddy," Iyo confirmed, with a sniffle. "Bad man."
Himiko gazed down at the tiny head. Her daughter was afraid. And she would be, for the rest of her life, if Himiko walked away right now.
There was no decision to be made. There was only destiny.
"He's not gonna take you anywhere," she said softly. "I won't let him."
Iyo sniffled, rubbing at an eye with a tiny fist. "Pwomise?"
"Promise." Her mother pulled back a little so she could meet her daughter's eyes. "I'll..." she paused, drawing in a breath. "I'm gonna have to go away for a little while, tomorrow. To... To talk... with Genyo. And tell him you're staying with me now."
"kay," Iyo nodded, hugging her mother again, happily this time. "'s Good."
Himiko closed her eyes, laying her cheek against the small head. "I hope so."
Battle sounds sidled between the trees, circling around her. Gabrielle closed her eyes and focused all her attention on running. She jumped over a fallen log that blocked her path without sparing it a single thought. She didn't need to see it to know it was there. She'd been here so often.
Her breathing was coming in heavy rasps and her body was yelling at her to stop, to slow down. But she wouldn't. She couldn't.
She had to be fast enough. Gabrielle forced her feet forward, in spite of the aching muscles. She had to be, this time.
She heard the sound of the arrow snapping into the ground and her eyes shot open. Several metres away she could see the warrior fighting off several men by herself, while more came storming towards her from every side. "Xena!"
Xena didn't respond, she was far too busy fending off her attackers. Gabrielle looked up, past the warrior, to see a samurai dismounted his horse. Her eyes widened as she recognised his face.
"Xena, look out!" She called to her friend again. "He'll kill you!" In her desperate run for her friend she didn't notice a protruding root and her foot got stuck under it, sending her crashing harshly onto her knees. She looked up, tears welling up in her eyes.
Haru walked up to the warrior, seemingly ignoring the chaos of battle rushing past him, and stopped right in front of her. Xena didn't appear to notice him, fighting every opponent but the samurai. Haru stood silently, then his dark eyes lifted and he looked over the warrior's shoulder, straight at the bard. They were filled with a deep sadness. "I don't want this to happen."
"I know," Gabrielle heard herself say, her eyes locked with his.
"I'm sorry," the samurai said, then he pulled back his sword and trust it forward again.
A cry of pain echoed through the woods.
"Gabrielle?" Hands were touching her face, gently stroking her cheek. "Hey?"
Gabrielle blinked open her eyes, looking up to find concerned blue eyes gazing down at her. "Xena?"
"Yeah," the warrior managed a small smile. "I'm here."
The bard drew in a raspy breath, her heart beating frantically in her chest. Her wide eyes flicking over the area in alarm. She was sitting, with her back against a tree, looking out over the small lake Xena had found earlier. Her eyes tracked back to Xena's face, barely seen in the darkness. Gabrielle released the breath she'd been holding, letting herself fall sideways, coming to lean against the warrior.
Xena wrapped her arms around her, kissing the top of her head. "Nightmare?"
The bard nodded mutely.
Xena exhaled, gently laying her cheek against the blond hair. "Sorry."
Gabrielle shifted a little, snuggling closer, needing the contact. Her friend responded by tightening her hold, drawing soothing, tiny circles over her skin. Gabrielle closed her eyes, as the remnants of her dream echoed on in her mind. "Xena?"
"Promise me you won't die this time."
The warrior frowned, then pulled back a little, facing the bard. "What?"
"I know you have to. For... for the souls," Gabrielle stuttered. "But... Not like this. Please, not like this again."
Xena studied her friend, her face hidden in shadows. Shadows only partly caused by the branches blocking the moonlight, she realised. "Your nightmare was about Higuchi?"
"I try to save you," the bard managed, her voice hoarse. "Every night I try. I run and I run, but... I'm never on time."
The warrior swallowed, a look pure of anguish crossing her face. For a moment she felt completely lost, unable to think of the best way to reassure the bard. Then she just ditched thinking, and went with her gut, reaching out and cupping the blonde's face, forcing her to meet her eyes. "I won't die," she vowed solemnly, even though she realised it was an absurd promise to make under the current circumstances. "Dying is not part of the plan this time. Okay?"
Gabrielle sniffled, her heartbeat slowing it's rapid thumping at the promise. "Okay." She hid her head in Xena's shoulder again, wrapping her arms around the warrior, letting her mere presence comfort her. She was slowly waking up from her post-nightmare frenzy now and she was chastising herself for opening her heart to her friend like this. Xena was already so concerned about the approaching battle and the souls and everything. Last thing she needed was her sidekick crashing down on her. "Sorry about this. I didn't mean to..."
"Shh..." Xena just hugged her back. "No more apologies. Time's too precious to waste on saying things we both already know."
Gabrielle managed a half smile at the words. "Okay," she agreed, rubbing the warrior's side affectionately. She sucked in a breath, the familiar scents quelling the remaining uneasiness. "Is everything ready?"
"Yep," the warrior confirmed. "I sent everybody home to get some sleep before Hell breaks loose. The scouts will let us know when the army moves. I don't think that'll be too much longer though."
"Guess I should pick up my armour then, hmm?" Gabrielle mumbled, stretching her muscles a little, hearing some bones crack back into place. "Ugh... And maybe a bit of a warm up beforehand wouldn't be a bad idea either."
"Guess that means we have to move." Xena murmured, laying her head against the bard's.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Yup. I guess so."
Silence fell, in which neither of them moved a single muscle. Finally, Gabrielle glanced up, meeting twinkling blue eyes. They both grinned. "We're so bad," Gabrielle drawled, getting a chuckle from the warrior.
"Now that's stating the obvious," Xena replied, affectionately ruffling her friend's hair, before she reluctantly backed away from her comfy position and rose to her feet. "Come on," she reached down a hand. "We'll check those traps, go get your armor, get you dressed up..." she hauled the bard to her feet. "And after that... I'm gonna need your help with one more thing."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "What?"
"First things first," Xena told her, wrapping an arm around her friends shoulders and guiding her towards the nearby road. "Do you wanna check the trees or the road?"
"Hmm, now lemme think," the bard rubbed her chin. "Climbing into a huge tree in the middle of the night and hopping from branch to branch on a ridiculously high altitude with the risk of falling and breaking every single bone in my body, or safely staying on the ground... Tough choice."
The ghost of a knock made Matsuo turn towards the door. "Yes?"
Slowly the door creaked open and when it had opened wide enough Himiko peaked her head in. Her eyes widened. "What are you doing out of bed?"
Matsuo smiled warmly, as he leaned back against the windowsill. "Looking at the stars," he explained, as he cast a look out the window. "They're particularly bright tonight. Have you noticed?"
Himiko stepped inside fully, closing the door behind her. "I've been too busy to notice." She took a step towards him. "Shouldn't you be lying down, grandfather? I mean, in your condition..."
"Shush, child." Matsuo waved her off negligently. "I feel fine. For a man my age anyway." He grinned. "Your Kami's odd healing technique appears to be quite effective."
Himiko smiled back at him. "I'm glad." She gently laid a hand on his arm. "I... I would have felt very lost, if you'd gone."
The older man lifted a hand and laid it against his granddaughter's cheek. "You have always been so independent. Have always followed your heart. It never occurred to me that maybe you needed me. Not after all I've done."
A small shrug. "What is love, if not the ability to forgive the unforgivable?"
Wrinkled lips quirked up at this. "Nicely put, my dear. You should have been a poet, perhaps."
Himiko chuckled softly. "I'm no poet." Her gaze turned to the window, and up at the sky, watching the multitude of stars twinkle at her. "I'm not sure what I am," she continued, pensively.
Matsuo wrapped his arm around her, comfortingly. "No one knows who they are, child. The Kami have handed us the puzzle of our identity, and a lifetime to put the pieces together." A soft chuckle. "If you'd already managed to complete this puzzle, at your age, I'd feel remarkably insignificant for taking so long."
Himiko laughed softly at this, leaning her head against her grandfather's shoulder. "Do you understand now though? Who you are?"
Matsuo drew in a breath, slowly, considering the question. "I think..." he glanced down at the head tucked against his shoulder. "I think I am an old man. Who's been blessed with a wonderful son and who has been in the privileged position of watching his son's daughter grow up into her father's spitting image."
Himiko managed a half smile. "For the first time I welcome that comparison."
"If he were here today, he would be very proud of you." A silence followed, in which Matsuo stared out the window pensively, then down at his granddaughter, carefully considering his next words. "And... If he were here, I think he would give you something I've hidden."
Himiko frowned, then tipped her head back, meeting her grandfather's dark eyes questioningly. "What?"
The older man inhaled deeply, squared his shoulders a little. "Do you remember that time, when you were playing near that place, in the forest? Near your father's grave?"
Himiko took a moment, searching through her memories. "Yes," she nodded, finally, as the memory resurfaced. "I was building castles in the sand. You got upset and sent me away. I didn't understand why."
"I sent you away, because, when you father died, seeing anything that had belonged to him hurt. I decided to take everything I could find of his, and bury it all close to where he lay." A wry smile. "I was upset, because I feared you would unearth his belongings and the hurt that lay buried with them." Matsuo dug into a pocket, retrieving a dull grey key and held it out to her. "There are things inside you might need now."
Himiko stared at the item on his palm for a long, silent moment, until she finally lifted the key up, carefully folding her fingers around it. Then she raised her eyes, meeting her grandfather's insecurely.
"Go," Matsuo gently squeezed her shoulder. "Dawn will come sooner than you wish."
Himiko nodded, managing a smile for him, before she turned and walked out the room, towards the forest.
Himiko knelt, placing the small lantern she'd brought down on the ground beside her. Before her, the ground was slightly elevated, marking the spot where her father's things were buried. She reached out, letting her fingers dig into the cold earth.
It wasn't long before her nails scraped over a solid object. Himiko wiped at the item she'd touched upon, clearing away a few more grains of sand, and narrowing her eyes, trying to make out what she'd unearthed through the darkness. Her fingers slid over the smooth, uneven, warm surface, identifying the material as some sort of polished wood. She felt strips of metal, and finally some sort of handle. She grabbed hold of it with both hands and pulled, trying to drag her find into the light.
It took quite some effort, the item having grown accustomed to its spot in the dark, not eager to be uncovered after so long. But finally Himiko triumphed, managing to pull the object onto the ground beside her, the soft light of her lantern illuminating it.
Himiko hesitated for a moment, then carefully reached out, brushing a few more grains of sand off the wooden surface. It was a chest, a rather large one, made of deep brown mahogany wood. The lid was slightly curved, and the wooden boards were held together by strategically placed strips of metal. There was a lock at the front, keeping the lid in place. Himiko fished the key from her pocket and stuck it in the lock, turning it.
The lock croaked, the rusty contraption hesitant to allow entrance. After a moment though it opened with a scratchy click. Himiko pulled it away and placed it on the ground beside her. She hesitated a moment, then she placed both her hands on the lid, gently pushing it upwards.
A musty smell rose from the chest, of dust and mold, mixed with damp wood. Himiko lifted the lantern, placing it on a corner of the box, letting the light illuminate the contents.
Her eyes slowly slid over the items inside. All were hauntingly familiar, bringing with them echoes of a past she hardly remembered. There were mostly personal knickknacks. Some artistic wooden carvings of a variety of fish. A simple drawing of some quiet glade, a few words scribbled at the bottom in her father's handwriting, stating where the picture had been made. Himiko reached inside and lifted up a piece of rope, to which dozens of small bells were attached. They chimed gently as a breeze fluttered past. A quiet, soothing sound.
Himiko placed them on the ground beside her, then reached in again, lifting up a piece of clothing, letting it unfold as she held onto the edges.
Her breathing caught as she realised what it was she was holding. She swallowed, as she reached out with shaking fingers, touching a ugly purple spot on the light blue fabric of what had been her father's kimono, at the area which had covered his stomach. The fabric was clean, had been washed, but this stain couldn't be removed.
Blood. Himiko glanced in the chest, seeing several bits of armour neatly arranged at the bottom.
Her father had worn this, at the battle. When he'd died. Brown eyes tracked back to the purple stain. This had been his armour, his clothing. She folded the fabric open. This was...
Her hands stilled then, as she spotted a small square bit of fabric, carefully attached to a spot which had once covered his heart.
A young man turned around, smiled, then directed a few words at a boy standing nearby, who took the reins to his horse.
"Daddy! Daddy!" She ran forward, trusting him to catch her before she crashed into his legs, which he, of course, did.
"Hey Princess," Himiko felt herself giggle as she was tossed up into the air. "Escaped your mama again, hmm?"
"Yes," Himiko beamed a smile at him as they came face to face. "Look." She lifted the fabric she'd been clinging onto, holding it out to him.
"Is that for me?"
Her father took it from her hands, folding it open to reveal the picture she'd made. Of her father and her mother and herself, standing together, surrounded by flowers. It was a cheerful, happy picture. She was happy after all.
Her father had looked at it, and he'd swallowed and looked sad for a moment, but then he'd looked up again and smiled at her. "That's beautiful, sweetheart." He'd pressed a kiss against her forehead. "You know what I'm gonna do with this?"
She shook her head.
"I am gonna put this right here," he pressed the picture against his heart. "That way, no matter how long I'll be gone, the only thing my heart will see is you and your mama and me together."
Himiko felt a tear sliding down her cheek. She sniffled, hastily wiping it away. She couldn't start crying now, she told herself. If she did, she wouldn't be able to stop. She drew in a deep breath, the cold, slightly damp evening air managing to calm her. She gently removed the picture from the fabric, lifting it up and pressing it to her lips for a long silent moment. Then she laid it aside and rose to her feet, keeping hold of her father's kimono. She held the clothing out before her, judging its length. Her father had been taller than she was, but... perhaps with some adjustments....
To continued in Part V
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