Rated as adult material for some violence and a loving relationship between two consenting adults and because anything can happen in my stories. If you are easily offended please read something else.
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Suggestion: If you havenıt seen The Last Battleground: A Friend in Need you may want to wait to read this as it contains spoilers!
Lost Soul 3 -- Journey
I stood at the stern rail watching the dark land drop slowly behind and into the sea. The sun had already set, and the western clouds brought golden fire to the sky in the west while the eastern sky had already faded from blue to purple then gray, darkening towards black. To the east a few early stars poked through to shed their lonely light on me.
I saw these things only peripherally since my mind had all but shut down, my dull green eyes staring sightlessly at the hated land slowly dropping away from me. Everything that meant anything to me had been destroyed there, and I hadnıt even been allowed to know of it until it was too late to do anything about it.
With the deepening darkness the land disappeared, and I turned to my cabin, the men still on deck avoiding me as if I had the plague. I saw the fear on their faces but it didnıt mean anything to me. Through the previous night I had agonizingly penned the hardest thing I had ever written, through endless tears. In the end it was wandering, aimless, much more and a great deal less than I wanted to say. What I should have done is set fire to it and simply said goodbye to her face, but I was a coward, unable to face her, my hurt driving me away from her.
In the tiny space that was my lodgings I unrolled my bedroll and crawled into it without lighting a candle in the intense blackness. I lay down fully clothed, only taking time to drop my weapons next to the bedroll, even ignoring my boots. It no longer mattered. Sleep, when at long last it came, was full of fear and anxiety at things unknown and unseen. I finally rose from my torture and made my way on deck. It was still dark, the decks in deep black shadow from the sliver of moon. I made my way to the bow, the breeze blowing my short blonde hair back, caressing my face. The little ship plowed steadily through the dark swells, silver moonlight sparkling in the spray rushing back away from the bow as it cut its way through the sea. I stood in silence, riding the rhythmic surge and ebb of the bow as we crossed the never-ending swells. I stood looking out across the immense endless sea, barely hearing the hiss of our passing, the rhythmic splash of the bow as it dropped off a swell into yet another trough, or the occasional flutter and snap of the sail. Unlike many of my past voyages I was feeling no effects of the constant up and down and side-to-side motion of the little ship. It was as if my body had shut down, becoming insensitive to my surroundings.
Once again Apolloıs Chariot broke free of the grip of the underworld and painted the morning clouds with the glorious colors of his arrival. I hardly notice, the brilliant colors failing to penetrate the darkness of my existence.
When the decks became busy I made my way back to my little room and to my bedroll, tossing and turning throughout a stifling miserable day, unable to find the strength to leave the little sweatbox.
For three days my empty life dragged through time no faster than a snail can crawl. My thirst grew until my throat was so dry I could hardly swallow, and my neglect of food the entire time had left me weak and shaky. Except for one more time at the bow, I never left the little room.
I woke the fourth day feeling very weak and extremely thirsty. There was warmth to my body, but a chill made me shake. If I continued the way I was going I would sicken and die. I realized I didnıt care, but a short time later I made my way to the deck and filled my waterskin from one of the barrels. I then made my way to the space set aside as a galley, the crew nervously taking their leave, barely noticed by me. I took a little food and some bread and made my way back to my cabin.
For the first time, I lit a candle and then sat down to my meal. Like most ships fare it was either too salty or very bland but I hardly noticed. I wasnıt even sure why I was eating or even that it would stay down.
Almost against my will, the food and water having refreshed me a little, I stripped out of my days dirty clothes and managed to wash the worst of the sweaty grime from my body with a damp cloth. It was the best I could manage while aboard ship, other than a salt-water bath, which I neither had the desire or energy to do. I unpacked my one other change and got dressed, automatically adding my weapons, except the armor, which I had left in Japa along with Xenaıs ashes, in the care of a man named Tanaga, who had shown me great kindness. I no longer went anywhere without my weapons, a habit I no longer even thought about.
Fully dressed, I took a moment to comb out my hair then adjust my clothes a little. I left the room and returned to the deck.
It was early afternoon and most of the crew lazed around amidships. Some of them had taken positions against anything that would give a little shade. Many of them seemed to be working on pieces of equipment. Four of them worked together on a tattered sail, patching it with parts of another sail to make it usable again.
The center of the deck was empty and I took it over, just intending to work some of the stiffness my inactivity had caused, out of my limbs. I began with a simple warm-up and really intended to quit after that, but habit and the rhythm of the exercise took over and soon I was into the full ritual I had developed to keep me in shape. As I worked I purposely kept my mind blank of any thought save what I was doing. I didnıt want to think. It was too painful. After a warm up I worked with my sai, going through the full routine, except for the throwing practice since I didnıt have a usable target. When done I dropped the sai back into the laces of my boots and pulled the daggers I now wore far back on my hips, a gift of thanks presented to me by Tanaga from the townspeople of Higuchi when they discovered where I was. News of my whereabouts had spread like wildfire. I had tried to refuse but was unable to offend them, which Tanaga assured me my refusal would represent. They were beautiful, perfectly balanced, razor sharp, the blades highly polished and the handles of finest ivory. Kings owned weapons such as these, not simple peasant girls. I practiced for the first time with them, carefully, since in my novice state with them they were as dangerous to me as to anyone else. It didnıt take me long to get a feel for them and I worked a ritual similar to the one I used for my sai, though obviously having to use more care when I touched the blades. They seemed as sharp as my other new weapon, which I had left in my room. I could not yet contend with carrying the chakram. I didnıt feel I was its rightful owner, but in fact I was, like it or not. The chakram had linked itself to me when Xena died, and it was as much mine as was my right hand. No one else could successfully wield it, at least among the living.
Finished with the knives, I drew the katana, only vaguely registering the gasps of shock, for a katana is never put away without tasting blood. I went through the graceful ballet, which was my ritual with sword; the katana lending a new depth to my motions that my Amazon sword had lacked. The katana was such a slender, graceful weapon exquisitely balanced and razor sharp. It seemed to flow through my motions without my conscious thought.
Regretfully I slowed and finally stopped unable to go much further in my weakened state yet already having gone much further than I had intended. I stood, frozen, the katana raised before me ready to strike either left or right with a simple turn of my wrists. Apolloıs fire raced along the blade, blinding in its brilliance. I became aware of my audience, realizing that every man aboard watched me in fascination and a visible fear. In my hand was the most feared weapon of death in Japa, so sharp it could cut through most armor where another sword would hardly mark it, or the thickest neck, bone and all, where another blade would do less than half the damage. It was such a weapon that had taken everything from me.
They waited, hardly breathing, fearful of what I would do when I moved, for many were the tales of warriors using the necks of the peasants to test the sharpness of their blade or satisfy its thirst for blood.
The katana moved so fast many of them gasped and pulled away, but I had simply reversed the blade to point towards me and laid it straight out. Slowly so all could see I let my left little finger barely touch the blade, then held it up so all could see the drop of blood, almost smiling at the relieved sigh that followed. In a quick fluid motion I slid the katana back into itıs scabbard and walked away, to stand silently at the bow while my body cooled from my little workout. I felt better, invigorated, more alive than I had felt since that terrible night barely a week gone, yet the mind that drove me to work my body was still numb, still broken, still at a loss, without any desire to go on, or any goals. The tears were gone, I had cried a sea of tears and there were no more within me. At the moment this glowing, sweating body harbored a mind that was all but dead. No emotion and little thought troubled me. I stared blindly into the distance not seeing anything. My heart beat and my chest rose and fell, blood coursed through me, but they kept a mind alive that wanted to be dead. Xena had betrayed my trust, my faith in her. She had abandoned me; shut me out, making my decisions for me, deceiving me, without thought to my reaction, without any consideration for my feelings.
To protect me.
She had destroyed me as surely as she had permitted some second rate warlord, that didnıt even measure up to her boot tops, to kill her, to obtain her goals.
As the thoughts of her actions came over me again I returned to my room and dropped into my bedding trying desperately to shut them out.
A loud crashing noise followed by screams and shouting, roused me from a dark nightmare. I was on my feet and out the door without a thought. The deck was in chaos, men fighting swords and daggers with daggers and clubs. A second ship ran alongside ours and men jumped from it to our deck.
A man ran towards me, sword lifted high and my katana arced across his middle nearly cutting him in half. Then I was in the battle, my war cry startling both sides, my katana tasting blood with every swing.
When I stopped, my movement frozen, katana ready to strike, surveying my surroundings, I stood on the deck of a death ship, blood running across a deck littered with the bodies of the raiders. I turned full circle, my eyes coming to rest on the crew of the other ship; the one I had been a passenger on. The crew stood in awe, unable to believe what I had done. In a very short time I had turned their certain defeat and death into a complete victory. Not a single raider still lived.
When I was sure there were no more raiders I lowered the katana then cleaned it off on a rag I ripped from one of the dead, and returned it to the scabbard. I realized that the ship was adrift and slowly pulling away from the other. My running leap and flip across the widening expanse of water, landing me back on the deck of the other, brought gasps and excited comments.
The captain thanked me profusely for saving his ship and crew. The crew added their thanks, much to my embarrassment. I wanted nothing more than to escape to my room and did so at the first opportunity, after assuring the captain that he was welcome to the raider ship if he could capture it.
Back in my room I cleaned the blood of many deaths from my body wondering why the deaths did not bother me. I didnıt even know how many I had killed. A spark of concern ignited in the back of my mind. I had always avoided causing death whenever possible and any death had always bothered me, but I felt nothing for these men.
There was a knock at my door and when I opened it the Captain ushered in several men. Two brought in a small table and a chair, setting them in the corner. Two more set the table with meat, bread, and wine. The captain explained it was a small token of their appreciation. With many bows and smiles they were gone and I was alone. I took my place at the table and poured some of the wine from the heavy wineskin. The taste surprised me. This was no cheap wine from the local inn. I drained the cup and poured another then started on the meal suddenly realizing that I was famished. The food too, was much better than I expected aboard ship, much better than the stuff I had taken the day before.
I finished the food and some hours later finished the wine, drunker than I could ever remember myself getting before, so drunk I could not stand, and eventually dropped into a deep sleep.
I think that by the time the ship pulled into port, with its prize in tow, the captain had begun to worry. Every night they brought me food and drink, and every morning I leaned over the railing heaving my guts out. He would have been even more concerned had he known that it wasnıt the wine, that my hangovers were light. Every morning I woke with the vivid vision of Xenaıs nude, decapitated body, strung up by the wrists and shot full of arrows. Every night I saw the small table sitting in the rain with Xenaıs head resting in the center. Every night I cut her down, broke off the arrows, and wrapped her in my blankets then draped her across my horseıs shoulders. Every night I lifted her head from that table and placed it in the sack then tied it to my saddle. Every night I built up her funeral pyre and laid her body and head on it, then watched until there was nothing but ashes left. Every single night her hand reached out and stopped me from bringing her back, her words resounding in my head, "I have to stay dead," over and over, until I screamed my torment and heaved my guts into the uncaring sea.
They were glad to be rid of me, I know, though they once again thanked me for helping them. I stepped from the ship, only vaguely aware of what country or city I was in, for I had neglected to ask, not caring where they were bound as long as it was away from Japa.
I heaved my belongings to my shoulder then stepped from the ship and started along the main street. This near the docks the streets were crowded with all manner of people and shops. Vendors hawked almost anything imaginable from fine silks and exotic treats to beasts of burden and slaves. The crowds were thick; jostling each other, yet there was a space around me as if an invisible barrier kept everyone away. I traveled through the main square, full of even more shops and none of them turned my head, none of them mattered.
Without really paying much attention I became aware that I was again in Chin, a place that held only bad memories for me. Most of the people looked up at me in fear or hostility since to them I was a heavily armed foreign devil. I ignored them, turning into a less traveled way and making my way to an inn that was on a poorly traveled alleyway. When I entered, the room went dead silent, their stares openly hostile. As I passed through the crowd, murmurs rose up around me when they saw the dragon on my back; the symbol Akemi had cursed me to live with for the rest of my life. She had offered it to help protect me in my quest to save Xena, all the while knowing that she had condemned Xena to death by her own words. Now I walked the earth condemned by the same heartless bitch, to wear a symbol of fear and death forever prominently on my back. I could hide it, and seriously thought about it, but it doesnıt seem to matter to me if people see it and chose to hate me. I canıt seem to get up the mental energy to make a decision one way or the other, so I walk through life with people staring at my back in fear and superstition, a gift from the daily more hated Akemi.
The old woman at the head of the stairs quoted me a price for my needs and was shocked when I paid without any attempt to haggle. I took the narrow stairs two at a time and found the tiny room, the small furnishings making me feel my pronounced difference even more. In Greece I was slightly above average in height but by no means tall. In Chin I felt like a giant, tall, broad, cumbersome, out of place. The average man was shorter than I by only a little but most of the women made me feel like a bloated brute. A soft knock presaged an entourage of women to carry and fill my tub, then more to set my meal and wine. I declined the use of handmaidens to bathe and care for me and barred the door with my daggers driven into the wood, not trusting the flimsy wooden lock.
It felt good to remove my clothes, long dirty and uncomfortable with grime and salt. The straps and edges of my top and the belt of my skirt had chaffed me raw in places from the accumulated salt. I rubbed the place beneath my breasts where the top had been bothering me, careful of my tender breasts. It was nearing my time and they were tender to the touch. I dreaded my time because my emotions were often on a sea of high and low swells and I was having trouble enough with my emotions already, I didnıt need the added unpredictability of my time to make it worse.
The water was extremely hot and I eased slowly into it but it felt wonderful once I was under. The tub was small and not really comfortable for a brute such as I, so I didnıt stay in as long as I would have liked. After a short soak I washed my hair and then my body, careful of the chaffs and a few minor cuts, from my battle at sea, that still bothered me.
After drying on the towel provided I washed both sets of clothes and both my nightshirts then draped them around the room to dry. Tonight I would have to make do in my skin since I had nothing else with me. I sat and took my meal, again making heavy use of the wine, which was not bad for an isolated inn. When I finished the meal I blew out the candles then opened the single window in hopes of letting a little breeze into the warm room. It was a fairly cool night but the inn was filled with the heat of the day and the activities below. Already there was a light sheen on my body.
I drew down the covers and lay on the cool linen, my eyes open to the darkness.
What are you doing, Gabrielle? I asked myself. You have to stop this. Itıs time you got on with your life. My inner voice chided me and I knew it was right, but I really didnıt want to deal with it. I lay for several hours, hardly moving, listening to the subdued sounds around me. Sounds of normal life. The sounds of happiness, sorrow, anger, grief, living and dying. All these people around me had busy, often happy, sometimes sorrowful lives full of good things and bad, and yet they went on. I knew in my heart that that was all part of life and that I was no different. I had had many happy times, many fearful and sad times and several very sorrowful times. Xenaıs death was inevitable as is my own and I had to learn to accept it. I had to learn to let go of my grief, hurt, anger, and even the hatred that her death had brought to me. Most of all I had to learn to forgive. I had to start by forgiving myself.
The thought was like a sudden slap in the face it so startled me.
Forgive myself? Why would I have to forgive myself? The thought was mine but I didnıt understand it. No, I must have thought it wrong. I could think of many people I might have to forgive both here and at home, but myself?
I fell asleep with that thought foremost in my mind and woke screaming at the headless body swaying in the wind driven rain.
It was just after sunrise when I entered the common room, my belongings slung over my shoulder. My reception was quite different than the night before. There was a moments silence then a flurry of low conversation throughout the room. One of the servers came up to me and offered me a table then hurried away to bring me breakfast.
Though the people around me kept to whispers, the general background noise kept forcing them to raise their voices. I was not very fluent in their language and their rapid-fire chatter was hard to follow but I did catch mention of dragon woman and dragon lady, even dragon princess. I also caught snippets about the sea battle, the comments raising my eyebrow with the exaggerations already circulating. Obviously the crew of the little ship from Japa was spreading tails of my battles both on the ship and in Japa. As usual, rumor spread faster than a racing horse and although I was in an out of the way inn I was already the victim of excited talk and speculation. The looks that were turned my way were no longer hostile, but many of them were still fearful, others looked at me in awe, doubt, envy and even greed. There was always money to be made from the unusual and already I was the most unusual thing to have happened around here in a long time.
The young girl brought me bread, meat and cheese along with a mug of cold cider. Nearly every eye in the place watched every move I made, as I ate my meal. It surprised me that I felt uncomfortable. The Gabrielle of only a few weeks ago reveled in attention and would have been deep in conversation with some of these people, learning of their culture, making friends, telling tales of her famous friend. That Gabrielle was more mature and less excitable than the young girl of several years ago and seldom played the bard anymore, but she was still open to people and interested in everything, but that was a lifetime ago. Now the attention was making me nervous and uncomfortable. Now I had no desire to talk to these people or any others. Now I was feeling a little uneasy about the possibility that they would intrude on my self imposed isolation. I finished my meal and stood, dropping an overly generous coin on the table, but I was too late. No one in the inn had made a move to talk to me, content to watch me and chat with their friends and family about this strange, barely clad woman from a far away land, but the word was out for better or worse, and worse came seeking me to make a name for himself.
The outer door slammed open and a warrior entered. He came into the room and stopped, spreading his legs and placing his hands on his hips. Four others entered and spread out behind him. In the blink of an eye the center of the room was vacant of the dozens of people milling around only seconds before. I let my belongings slide back to the floor against the wall and turned to him.
He smiled, his intense black eyes radiating challenge. "You are this Grecian whore they call the Dragon Princess!" he barked. "You are nothing! A slut, indecently clad to sell your wares!" he shouted in challenge, then waited for my reaction at his insult.
"You mistake me, sir. I am but a lonely traveler come to enjoy your country."
He spit at me, though he was too far away to touch me, the intent was the insult. "A traveler! Ah, yes," he slipped his fingers into his money pouch and took out a very small coin, tossing it at my feet. "Here is your fee, traveler. On your back where you belong and lift your skirt, whore. I will take you here in front of these peasants so they can see what manner of slut you really are."
I didnıt move, or look away from his angry glare. The Gabrielle of only a few weeks ago would have spent a good deal of time trying to defuse his threats and turn him away without violence but I was no longer capable of doing that. I donıt know if I was wiser or just tired of arrogant bullies but I knew there was no way to avoid a fight with this man.
"I will ask you again to allow a weary traveler to pass, sir. I have no quarrel with you."
"A whore and a coward," he sneered. "When you leave this place it will be to have your stinking carcass thrown to the dogs in the ally. Your head I will take with me!" He drew his sword and started towards me, then hesitated as my katana appeared in front of me.
Yaaa!" he screamed and rushed in, his sword arcing towards me. I parried his blow and stepped aside. He crashed into the table I had been sitting at for he had planned to run full into me, knocking me over. I backed away slightly, allowing him to recover, then smiled at him.
"I will allow you to live through that mistake, but it better be your last. Again I ask you to let me pass," I said and watched his anger flare. He charged me again, but more cautiously. I parried his blows, giving a little ground, but not too much since I had little room behind me. For an instant I was in a precarious situation because his men were moving to get behind me. He was a good swordsman, and two years ago I would have been hard pressed but I had learned from the very best and been in enough fights to make his moves slow and predictable. It took me but a few moments to have him figured out. As his men got set to rush me I parried his blow, but instead of returning the predictable stroke I stepped to the side, forced his blade away and down and danced around him, the tip of my blade drawing blood across his cheek.
He turned to me and stepped back, startled that I had touched him.
"You would be wise to quit now while you still can," I said, knowing he wouldnıt, couldnıt, without losing face. For answer he attacked me in a fury while his men sought to spread out all the way around me. Things were about to get very busy. "What manner of warrior are you that your men try to get at my back?" I asked. "Where is the honor in that?"
"You are not deserving of honor, foreign scum!" he yelled and pressed his attack trying to force me back against one of his men.
I had had enough of him. Unlike the Gabrielle I had been, I no longer believed I could merely incapacitate all my foes, his men yes, him no. He would not stop until one of us died. My katana deflected his sword and went through his heart and out his back as if he were mere mist, his leather armor not even slowing it down. At the same time I lashed out with my left foot catching the man behind me in the groin. The man in front of me tried to bring his sword down on me but I caught his wrist and held it in an iron grip while his strength faded. As he started to fall I pulled my katana from his body and moved away from him to where I could watch the other four, the one still on the floor.
"Your master is dead," I said, "You no longer have a reason to attack me."
For several tense moments they stood ready, undecided and I was beginning to think I would have to fight them anyway, but finally one of them lowered his sword.
"She is right. We have no reason to fight now." He slowly backed towards the door and the others took the hint when I maintained my readiness.
When they were gone the old woman that had sat at the foot of the stairs and taken my money the night before approached me and bowed. She handed me a cloth to clean my katana and I took it, bowing slightly. While I cleaned by blade she spoke to me slowly.
"We are in your debt, warrior. For you have rid us of an evil man. You will be forever welcome here."
"Thank you," I said, bowing slightly to her. "You owe me nothing. I would not have harmed him if I had had a choice, but Iım glad his folly is of service to you. I must be on my way."
"Nevertheless you are always welcome in my inn. Is there anything I can do for you before you leave?"
"Could you direct me to a stable where I might purchase a horse."
She turned and said something to the girl behind her and the girl hurried away.
"I have sent for my grandson. He will take you to a stable where you can purchase a good horse for a fair price. The owner is my son, Won Su," she said, and then smiled, a twinkle coming into her eye. "Do not let him charge you too much, warrior, as you did me."
I bowed, giving her a bit of a smile in return. "I will remember."
A small boy appeared at her side looking up at me with wide eyes. She spoke to him much too fast for me to follow and he nodded. She turned back to me. "This is my grandson Ki Lee. He will take you to my son.
I thanked her again and followed the young boy from the inn. Outside the road was lined with people who began talking excitedly as soon as I appeared. Embarrassed by the crowd, obviously there to get a glimpse of me, I hurried after Ki Lee. Many people bowed to me as I passed but most just watched in silence. It was an odd feeling for me, yet I knew that only a short time ago I would have acted quite differently to the crowds; now all I wanted to do was get away.
Ki Lee took me to a stable near the western road where I met Won Su. Ki Lee spoke to him and when he finished Won Su stood and turned to me, bowing.
"We are in your debt, warrior. Zang Gai was an evil man who made us all pay for his protection."
I again explained that they owed me nothing but that I was happy to have helped them.
Won Su took me into his stables and showed me several horses, all magnificent animals and obviously his best. The fifth one he showed me sent a stab of pain through me. I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach, for he was a golden palomino very similar to Argo, Xenaıs beloved warhorse. I turned from the magnificent horse and returned to the front of the stable feeling weak.
Won Su sent his son for water and asked me if I was all right.
When my heart slowed and I could breathe again I turned to him and apologized.
"Iım sorry Won Su. The palomino reminded me of someone who had a horse like that. She was very special to me.
He apologized profusely and I assured him it was not his fault. I told him I would take the first horse, a rather drab brown mare with a black mane and tail. He led the horse out to me and I talked to her and let her get familiar with me. I purchased my tack from him and he saddled her for me. When he quoted me a price I didnıt want to haggle with him, but remembering his motherıs words I protested a little and he promptly brought the price down a bit. I agreed, knowing I still wasnıt playing the game but could not bring myself to barter any more.
I thanked him and promised to return her if I decided to return to the sea. At his insistence I also promised to stay at his motherıs inn if I came back. Finally I could climb into the saddle and get on my way, and I nudged the warhorse into a rapid trot away from the town. I wanted to get away from everyone, to be alone with my thoughts and emotions. At that moment, after seeing the horse that looked so like Xenaıs incredible mare, I just wanted to fall off the end of the earth to somewhere that I wouldnıt have to think and react to others.
The warhorse took me rapidly down the path, passing all sorts of travelers, from the simplest peasant to the wealthiest merchant. All of them turned to watch me pass and many stopped to better see such a strange sight.
I headed for the mountains where I figured there were fewer people and perhaps a secluded valley or meadow where I could be alone. I traveled for hours, stopping at noon near a stream and let my horse graze for a bit; then again two hours later, but I took nothing but water.
By evening I was well into the foothills, but so far I still traveled in a fairly populous area. I pressed on, even though it was dark, the half moon making traveling on the well-worn road easy. Two hours after dark I walked my horse into some trees and down to a small stream beside a little meadow. I was in luck. There was no one there. Finding a nice little area well hidden from the stream but close enough to make it a quick walk I set up my camp.
I settled for a bit of rice cake I had picked up in a little market that I had passed, not really very hungry. I spread out my bedroll but lay down on top of it fully clothed, wary of the location.
The night was long and my sleep fitful, full of unseen horrors as I walked Morpheus realm, the reality of the terrors just beyond my sight. I woke many times glistening with sweat, yet shivering with the icy chill of the horrors in my dreams. Several times I made my way to the little stream to splash cold water in my face.
Well before dawn I was up and into the trees when I heard unnatural sounds in the brush. Three men attacked my camp beating my hastily stuffed bedroll with clubs, and then pulled the covers back. The shock on their faces, and in their voices, as they realized that their prey was the predator made me smile as I silently stepped out of the brush behind them.
All three began to frantically search their surroundings and found me quickly. The shock and fear left their faces when they saw I was a lone woman and they attacked me, raising their clubs. The hiss of my katana against its scabbard froze them like statues.
"How many heads will my blade collect today?" I asked and even in the dim light I could see them pale. We stood frozen for a moment, and then I took a sudden step forward and shouted, "Hiyah!" They scattered as leaves to the wind, stumbling, falling and running through the smaller brush and I felt a laugh bubble up from deep inside at the ridiculous sight.
The light mood ended as abruptly as it had begun, everything about my little camp reminding me that I now traveled alone. I gathered my belongings and saddled my horse. In a very short while I was again trotting the mountain path, a strange sight for the people I passed to wonder about.
I traveled for three days ever higher into the mountains. On the second morning it was noticeably cooler and I made a stop in a small town, purchasing a heavy coat and some gloves. I was lucky with the coat since they were made large to cover thick layers of clothes. The largest one fit me well enough, though the sleeves were a little short and it only fell to my knees. I purchased a pair of long trousers, again short on me but at least covering my legs below the tops of my boots. The heavy shirt I purchase fit me well, but the sleeves were short. My katana became a problem with the long coat and I mounted it to my saddle within easy reach at need. While in the same town I bought provisions to last me a long time. I purchased mainly spices, tea and a few utensils since I would hunt for my food and to that end I purchased some rope, twine, and a stout bow with a dozen arrows, though I could make them as needed.
As I started out of the town the local bully and his gang thought to use me for their pleasure and take my horse. Again my katana dissuaded them and they let me pass.
That third night I was high above the snow line with thickening clouds beginning to drop their heavy burden, and a howling wind to whip it into a blinding fury. It had come on me suddenly, from behind the peaks above me and I was trapped. The trail was narrow and treacherous and I dared not try to turn back. Already I walked ahead of my horse, afraid to try to ride her on the narrow path; a slip would mean a long fall to certain death. Although I was low enough in spirits I hardly cared, the horse was depending on me to see her safely through. So I struggled on toward what had dimly seemed the cave I had been told of, or at least a sheltering break in the rock, before the storm had taken it from my sight.
I seemed to be frozen in one place and frozen was the truth for I was so cold my whole body shook. I blindly trudged on; carefully placing one painfully cold foot ahead of the other in what seemed slow motion, my hooded head bowed into the icy gusting winds. An eternity seemed to pass with no change in my surroundings, the horse obediently staying behind me without having to be coaxed and I thanked her previous master for training her well.
I stumbled to my knees, and just sat there barely conscious, slowly realizing I had fallen asleep while I walked. I could not remember where I was or what I had been doing and might have died there if my horse hadnıt nudged me. The shove startled me out of my stupor and I looked around. She snorted and nudged me again, her muzzle covered in ice from her hot breath. I turned back to the front, struggled to my feet, and started on.
In less than ten steps the wind seemed to die and barely ten paces in front of me was a rock wall, the path leading around to the right but a dark opening leading to the left. I led my horse into the darkness on the left, out of the icy winds, the difference so profound that the icy cave felt warm by comparison. I felt my way carefully along, testing the ground, until we were well out of the wind, and then stopped, turning back to my horse. My fingers were so numb that I had trouble letting go of the reins. I ignored them and brushed as much snow and ice as I could off of her. The work began to warm me, though I could feel ice and snow inside my clothes. My hands became painful as they started to warm a little, but they were still useless. I could not feel them though I could still move them a little. I pulled my gloves off with my teeth and pushed my frozen fingers into my armpits, the icy cold almost more than I could stand.
I continued to move around in a small space that I knew was safe, stomping my feet and even running in place, though it was more a slow plodding in my cold stiffness and the sudden lethargy that threatened to overwhelm me as I warmed. I began to feel my fingers, the pain excruciating, but welcome, and I quickly found the materials and made a tiny fire, to light a large stick to use as a torch. With this in hand I explored further back in the cave. Further in, the narrow path widened out into a small room, and I quickly brought my horse into it; building a small fire from the wood I had brought, at the suggestion of a woman in the last village. I kept the fire small since I had no idea how long my wood might have to last me. This storm could last a few hours or a week. I was sure if it lasted the week, this would be my gravesite. I brought the horse close to the fire and warmed myself a little more before doing anything else, but when I started to drowse I got to work. After putting my waterskins close enough to the fire to help them thaw, I stripped the gear from my mount then rubbed and brushed her; finally covering her with one of my blankets. I gave her the first of the water to thaw, then fed her a little of the grain I had purchased to feed her while above the snow line.
Too tired to do anything else I wrapped myself in the other blanket and leaned against the wall, dropping immediately to sleep.
I woke shivering with the cold. The fire was down to a few embers and I quickly got it going again, though keeping it small. I checked my horse, giving her a bit more water then wrapped back in my blanket and went to sleep.
I stood looking back at the howling blizzard outside. It was the second day and I had survived this long only by making a fire when I could no longer stand the cold. My wood was nearly gone, two more little fires would end it, and here I stood early on the second morning, after gathering some snow to heat for water, watching the howling winds race around the cave entrance, preventing me from leaving. With luck I could last another day, but not much longer. I turned from the white glare and returned to the darkness of our cave, since it was not yet time for me to light another fire. As my eyes readjusted to the gloom I could make out my surroundings from the white glare at the entrance. There was little to keep me occupied but I brushed my horse and kept busy as long as I could with whatever I could think of because I stayed warmer with motion than sitting on the cold rock. During the night I had done a little more exploring to see if there was a better way out. There wasnıt, but further in the cave ended at a pile of rubble, and I found the remains of seven people, a grim reminder that I was within hours of the same fate.
I waited until I figured it was nearly noon, and then shared out the last of the melted water I still had with a handful of grain for the horse and a crust of rice cake for me. I was sorely tempted to strike a fire but knew that it would be much colder at night and that I had to conserve my wood.
I huddled into my blanket and drowsed for a time, waking with a start. Something was different enough to have wakened me and then I realized what it was. It was quiet. I had become so used to the howling winds that I missed them when they stopped. After a quick stretch to loosen cramped cold muscles, I made my way to the entrance. I looked out on a blinding world of white where nothing moved. The winds had stopped suddenly and the sky was clear but there were more clouds building in the distance and I was sure I didnıt want to be here when they arrived.
I hurried back into the cave and in short order was leading the mare out onto the dangerous path down the mountain, walking ahead of her. The path was very narrow until we made it around the sheer cliff that protected the cave then started rapidly down, widening into a better trail, though still treacherous with hidden ice and a long fall for the incautious. As we traveled downwards the mountain became less steep but the snow became deeper until it was above my waist in some places. Although it was soft and fluffy, pushing through it was exhausting and as soon as I trusted the trail I climbed into the saddle.
By late afternoon we had covered less than half a league and the clouds were moving in again. Finally, as the sun touched the western peaks we came off the narrow cliff trail and entered a forest. The going was not as treacherous, though ice was still a threat, but the deep snow, even among the trees, impeded our progress. I pressed on as fast as I dared even as it began to snow again.
Just after the last rays of the sun faded and the snow began to pick up I made out a light ahead, during a little pause in the storm when the winds died. It took me several hours in the deep snow but finally I came into a mountain village. I rode up to the stable door and pounded, then backed away.
The old man that pushed the door open enough to see me backed away in fright and I hurried to try to calm him. Still looking doubtful he led me to a stall and I took care of my horse, making sure she had water, a little grain and plenty of hay. After the meager rations she had gotten for the past few days I was sure she needed time to recover and if this village proved hospitable enough, I thought I might stay a day or two.
The old man watched me work and seemed to relax, although not enough to ask the questions I was sure were in his mind. When I had thrown my hood back he had gasped at my blonde hair and fair complexion, evidently never having seen anything like it before, but he remained silent after that.
"Tell me, grandfather, how is your inn? Will I be able to find a room or should I plan on sleeping with my horse?" I asked softly, giving him a smile to help assure him I meant no harm.
"This time of year you will have no trouble getting a room," he assured me.
"With this weather my horse may have to enjoy your fine stable for several days," I said, handing him a generous coin.
He bowed slightly. "I will care for her well."
"Thank you. She has had a hard time over the pass."
He looked at me as though I were crazy, shaking his head. "This is not a good time to travel the pass," was all he said.
"Knowledge that would have been valuable before I crossed," I conceded.
Leaving my tack on the fence I picked up by belongings, taking the katana from the saddle. He studied the weapon, puzzled by the strange designs on the wood and perhaps even more puzzled as to what it was. He suddenly seemed to come to a decision. "There are a few other travelers at the inn that may cause you trouble."
"Thank you," I said, giving him a grateful smile. Though I hardly needed the warning, it was nice to have someone care.
He held the stable door for me then closed it against the wind.
The inn was a long low single story structure that looked more like several buildings pushed together. I opened the door to the common room, a blast of heat greeting me. I entered and closed the door, scanning the room casually, as would any traveler. There was indeed the possibility of trouble in this room. Thatıs all that was in this room. The room was rather strange to me having a roaring fire in the center, open most of the way around, though three stone pillars seemed to hold up the stone chimney. Tables went most of the way around the fire in a circle with more tables against the walls. Two men sat alone, near the fire on my left and four more sat near the fire to my right, their faces the faces of predators, their eyes hooded. The rest of the room was empty. I turned to a table in the far corner, set my gear against the wall and the katana next to me within easy reach. While I seemed not to watch them I was aware that they watched my every move. The four were dangerous men, but the other two were the real threat. The four were common thugs as far as I could tell. The two were warriors on the wrong path, every bit of my training told me that they were brutal killers, though several years ago I would have seen little difference in the six men.
A middle-aged man came to the table and I ordered food and drink. He was very nervous but I could tell that I wasnıt the cause of his nervousness, though he did seem a little wary of me.
He brought me a warmed drink that was different than anything I had ever tasted before but was very good in the cold weather. When I was warmed up a bit I removed my coat and while straightening my heavy shirt let my dagger show and my sai became plainly visible as I rearranged the wet legs of my trousers.
When the man brought me steaming vegetables, meat, and rice, I asked about a room and bath. He assured me he had a room and would ready a bath for me.
I was nearly finished with my meal when the two men stood and wandered towards me. The other four turned to watch what would happen.
When the first man got close he pulled a wicked dagger and waved it at me. "Get up from there. You are coming with us," he snarled.
I ignored him and he came closer shoving his face up to mine along with the dagger. My fingers struck his neck and he fell over backwards gasping and clawing at his throat. The second man snarled and drew his sword then blinked in surprise because I stood in front of him with my katana ready.
He attacked me and we filled the building with the sound of swords clashing in anger. I gave ground to him for a bit, while I studied him. At one point his blade grazed my arm, though the thick shirt blunted the blow. After a few more strokes I returned the favor causing him to jump back in surprise. Anger contorted his face and he rushed me, his last mistake. His blade clattered to the floor as he looked down at the blade piercing his chest in amazement. As his knees buckled I pulled my katana from him and walked away.
It was too late for me to revive his friend, though I did try. When I looked up the other four had found their drink very interesting.
I returned to my table and finished my drink. When the owner appeared again I asked if I could help remove the dead men. He shook his head grinning, much more relaxed. "Thank you," he said, "but you have done more than enough this night."
He drafted the other four to help and they did what he asked without argument, casting furtive glances in my direction but avoiding looking at me directly.
The owner led me to my room where I again blocked the door with my daggers. The bath was a little larger than the last one and I had more room to relax and let the steaming waters take the last of the deep chill I had lived with, for several days, away. I relaxed in the waters until they were nearly cold, reluctant to get out of the soothing warmth. When I did I put on my clean nightshift and washed out my soiled clothes, trying to ignore the thoughts that insisted in tormenting me.
Finally I was done and fell into the soft warm bed exhausted nearly beyond endurance. I fell instantly into a heavy sleep, but it only lasted less than half the night.
I ran through the woods, dead bodies lying everywhere, searching for her, calling her name. There was no answer, only silence and death wherever I looked. "Xena!" I screamed running through the continuing trail of the dead. I stopped to catch my breath. "Xe." Her name froze in my throat and it seemed as if my heart and time stopped. My knees grew week and I fell, more that stooped, to pick up the gore encrusted chakram, holding it out away from me in disbelief as I managed to stand. My eyes refused to see what I had in my hand and I stumbled on, someone trying to stop me. I didnıt even hear their words as I pulled away from them. "No! Sheıs alive! Sheıs alive," I shouted, backing away from them and running. "Xena!"
I was sitting up in bed gasping, my chest heaving, my heart pounding, tears streaming from my face. I was soaked in sweat and shaking. I clutched my heaving stomach and doubled over, "No!" I screamed. "No, stop, please stop! Leave me alone! Leave me alone, Xena! Please leave me alone!" I cried sobbing into the bedding.
I woke with daylight streaming in the little window. After the one dream I had slept, still curled into a ball until wakened by sounds in the hall. They lifted the wooden catch on my door and tried to open it, even putting their weight against it, but my daggers held in the wood and they gave up. Morpheus claimed me again and thankfully I had no dreams that woke me.
I lay looking towards the morning light. The bed was warm and comfortable and I was reluctant to get up. I snuggled back into the blankets feeling rested but still lazy, the warmth making me drowsy. I could not remember the last time I had slept in much past the rising sun. When I first began traveling I was impossible to wake up, but in the past few years that had changed and sometimes I was up before Xena.
"Damn!" I muttered. Everything I thought of brought her to me. Everything I did reminded me of her. I could not get away from her. "Please leave me alone," I whispered, but it was no use. She was in my mind now and I knew she wouldnıt leave me.
The bed no longer enticed me. Now it repelled me and I threw off the covers and got up. My lazy easy mood was gone and a dark cloud moved over me again. Even here in the icy mountains of Chin, Xena haunted my every waking thought. My heavier clothes were still damp so I dressed quickly in my second travel skirt and halter. I collected my weapons and put them in place and today for the very first time, since that fatal battle, I dropped the chakram on my hip.
When I entered the common room it was just after sunrise but the room was nearly full, surprising me, though it shouldnıt have. Every table was occupied except the one in the corner that I had occupied the night before. As I entered the room it went silent and everyone turned to stare at me. The owner appeared and ushered me to my table then scurried away to bring me food and drink.
I ate in almost complete silence, as if the room was empty. I ate very little, having lost my appetite, wishing I could find a little of the younger Gabrielle to cope with this situation, but she was dead and gone, and I was on my own, unable to handle the crowd, at a loss what to do. I got to my feet and went out the front door into the cold winter morning, shivering with the cold by the time I got to the stable. I spent some time grooming my horse and seeing to her needs then just sat and talked to her in a low voice. Life was so unfair, so cruel, so uncaring. I ended up with my head in my hands crying my sorrows to myself.
My head snapped up and I stood moving quickly into the center of the stable to confront him, my hand on my katana.
He chuckled. "You canıt hurt me with that, Gabrielle. You should know that."
"What do you want, Ares?"
He shrugged. "I felt your pain and came to see if I could help."
"Go away, Ares."
"Now, Gabrielle, is that any way to act? I can help you, if youıll let me," he answered, practically purring and I felt something strange ripple through me.
"How can you help?" I asked against my better judgement.
"I can give you Xena back, Gabrielle," he said stopping in front of me and placing his hands on my waist, his eyes pulling me in.
"I uh, how?" I asked my resistance melting.
"I need you, Gabrielle," he said and his lips pressed against mine. I felt my knees going weak as I melted against him, my resistance fading fast, but a feisty little blonde from my past tugged at my mind and I pushed away from him breathing hard.
"What do you want, Ares?" I asked, my suspicions returning. He tried to pull me in again but I pushed away from him. "Stop it. Tell me what you want."
"Not much," he said and my hackles rose at the gleam in his eyes.
"Itıs just a small thing, Gabrielle. Just one little favor and you can have Xena back, I promise."
I backed away from him. "What? Tell me what."
"Give me a child, Gabrielle, and you can have her back. All I want is a child, nothing more."
"You want what?" I asked barely above a whisper, backing further away from him.
"If you will give me a child I will give you back Xena. If you give me your promise of a child you can have her right here, right now," he said softly. "Right now, Gabrielle. Give me your promise and she is yours, no strings attached."
Tears suddenly flooded my eyes and my stomach cramped doubling me over. I gagged and dropped to my knees then threw up. When the retching stopped I looked up at him and climbed to my feet shaking with anger.
"You heartless bastard!" I screamed and pulled my katana attacking him. He drew his sword and parried me grinning, knowing I couldnıt hurt him. I swung furiously at him as fast as I could and a couple even got through his guard, slicing harmlessly through him.
"Okay, I get the message," he said but I continued to attack him. Suddenly he reached past my sword and grabbed me by the throat, lifting me off the ground, choking me. "Thatıs enough, Gabrielle. Drop the sword."
I struggled futilely and he squeezed harder until my world went dark and the katana slipped from my grasp. He let me go and I fell to my hands and knees choking. When I got my breath back I stood up rubbing my neck.
"I canıt believe you would give Xena up that easily, Gabrielle. Her life is in your hands. All you have to do is give me a child and she lives. Refuse me and you are killing her again, Gabrielle."
"Youıre even a lower slime than I thought you were, Ares."
"What? Iım offering you exactly what you want. I mean, that is what all this running away is about, isnıt it? You got your little feelings hurt when your precious little Xena let some low rated warrior remove her beautiful head from her fantastic body without letting you in on it. Now youıre running away. Well little girl you canıt run far enough. There is nowhere to hide from yourself. You will be haunted by your little failure to protect her, until you die. You canıt escape it.
"Stop it!" I shouted, covering my ears.
"Face it, Gabrielle, you failed her."
"Stop it, Aries!" I screamed.
"You let her down, little girl."
"Stop it! Stop it!" I screamed, going to my knees, unable to control my sobs.
"Well you have one more chance, Gabrielle. Give me a child and all your failures go away. You get her back and everything is just fine again. Xena gets her life back and you get to be her savior. What could be bad, Gabrielle?"
I remained doubled up on the floor sobbing uncontrollably.
"Come on, Gabrielle. All I need is your word. Just say yes, and Xena will be here to comfort you."
He waited patiently while I continued to sob.
He knelt down in front of me placing his hands on my shoulders.
"Gabrielle. You can make it all go away. Just say yes and the nightmare is over. Xena is back and you can live happily ever after."
My fist caught him on the nose and he stumbled away from me rising to his feet. I rose with him; my fists doubled up, and hit him again.
"Ow! Hey, take it easy!" he said backing away from me.
"You really are a bastard, Ares. You tried this with Xena!"
"Yeah, but that was a while back. You knew about that."
"No, you tried it before you came here. I know you. You tried it with her and she turned you down so you waited until I was feeling really low and you tried it on me! You donıt even like me. Irritating little blonde, I believe is your pet name for me. "
"Well, hey, times change. Iım beginning to appreciate your attributes. Youıre very good looking, Gabrielle," he said, his eyes dropping to my chest.
I swung at him again and he backed away.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Itıs just a little thing. We make a baby and you get the warrior. Just say the word and sheıs all yours."
"The word is no, Ares. Aside from the fact that Xena would skin me alive if I gave you a baby, I would never do that to a child. I canıt think of anything worse than having you for a father."
"Youıre making a mistake, Gabrielle. In case you have forgotten, Xena is dead. Well beyond your reach without my help. You do this for me and sheıs back, just like that. If you donıt sheıs gone forever and you are alone with your failures."
The tears came unbidden, but in anger and frustration. He was right. I could no longer reach her and his offer was so very tempting, but in my heart I knew Xena would never forgive me, nor could I forgive myself. I couldnıt do it, even to save Xena.
"Go away, Ares. I would rather die than give you a child."
Suddenly he had me by the throat again. "I could arrange that, Gabrielle."
"Go ahead, Ares. Better death than your bed," I said staring into his dark eyes.
He dropped me as if I had stabbed him. "Youıll regret your decision, Gabrielle. Xenaıs death is on your head again."
"No, Ares. If you really loved her, like you have always claimed, you would bring her back simply because you can. Instead you try to barter her life first with her and then with me. You donıt love her. You donıt love anything. Go back to your lonely mountain. Youıre a relic. Soon people will stop believing in you and you will fade away."
Rage hardened his features as I spoke and he drew his sword stepping towards me.
"Itıs just like you to kill me while my sword is at your feet," I said in scorn.
He raised his sword to strike me but I stood my ground. "Remember, Ares, killing me is just another sign of your failure. Go ahead, God of War show me how you can kill the unarmed, I wonıt stop you. Show me how far youıve fallen. Do it, Ares."
"Youıre hardly unarmed," he said.
"Should make it easier for you. Come on. I promise not to try to stop you, little god."
Almost. His rage took him to the very edge and a part of me hoped he would end my misery. We stood as if frozen for several minutes. Finally he lowered his sword and stepped back.
"I was right. You are an irritating little blonde," he said smiling, but it was a hard smile. "You nearly got your wish, Gabrielle, but if I kill you, you get to be with Xena again, just like that. No, I donıt think Iıll make it that easy for you. I hope you live a very long and unpleasant life regretting all your failures. Just remember. You could have saved her, Gabrielle. Even now you could save her. Just say the word."
"Youıre disgusting, Ares. Get lost."
"Okay. Canıt say I didnıt try. Just remember, when the pain of your failures gets to be too much, give me a shout. The dealıs still open."
"Iıd sooner whore myself to the entire Roman army than spend any time with you, Ares. Go away."
"Careful, Gabrielle. I could arrange that for you," he winked then saluted me with his sword. "Just call, Gabrielle," he said, grinned, and then he was gone.
I just stood there for a moment, my revulsion at his callous conniving offer still churning my stomach, still trembling from the power of my anger. At last I picked up my katana and turned to my gear for a cloth to wipe it off.
The old man stood watching me. After a momentıs hesitation I took a cloth from where it lay on my horse blanket and wiped the blade down, and then returned it to itıs scabbard, watching him.
"Did you see" I hesitated, not sure what to say.
He nodded slightly. "I saw what I must assume was one of your gods, or a demon, though I could not understand your words. You are an unusual warrior. I remember no warriors that fought gods or demons, though I have heard of such.
"Please call me Gabrielle, grandfather."
He bowed slightly. "I am called Jai Zhong but as you accurately guessed all but my daughter and son call me grandfather. I came to ask if you would care for some tea, Gabrielle. I did not mean to intrude, but to see the arrival of a god or demon is a rare thing, and I was unable to move after that, in my surprise.
He had difficulty with my name but I ignored it. "I understand, grandfather, and I would be pleased to join you for some tea."
He bowed and turned, continuing to talk over his shoulder, expecting me to follow and I did. "I was prepared to bring the tea to you, Gabrielle, but I think you could use a comfortable chair."
How right he was! I still felt shaken up by my confrontation with Ares; the more so because I was realizing that part of me had goaded him, wanting him to kill me. I could not believe I had done that or that I was so down as to wish for such a thing.
He led me into a small but comfortable room and sat me down at a little table, then proceeded to make tea.
"I wonder that you seem so unafraid of someone you plainly saw as a god or demon, grandfather. He is a god, though from his actions he might be taken for a demon."
He smiled a little as he poured tea. "I admit to being startled and perhaps a little apprehensive of your god, Gabrielle, but I am an old man who has led a very full life. Looked at logically, your god would either ignore me or kill me, for he knew I was there. Neither choice bothers me. Although I do not care to die, I also do not fear death, for surely death can come to me any time now. At my age, knowledge that death is close takes away much of the fear. Your god chose to ignore me as no more significant than your magnificent horse."
"For that I am grateful to him."
"I did fear for you though, Gabrielle. I thought your god would kill you. He seemed very angry."
She nodded. "Iım afraid I pushed him a little too much."
"You pushed him? I do not understand."
"I made him mad, grandfather."
"You argued with your god?"
I smiled at his incredulity. "Itıs a very long story, grandfather. Ares is only one of our gods, the god of war. Heıs not really my god, though he does hold sway where I come from."
"You argue with your god of war! Gabrielle, I must tell you this is not heard of in my country. No wonder he threatened to kill you!"
"No. He was mad at me because I refused what he wanted."
"You can do that, refuse your gods?"
I chuckled. "Itıs not a very healthy thing to do, grandfather. Our gods are rather petty and vindictive."
"As are most gods, Gabrielle, but I know of none that will allow you to turn them down and live."
"Well, you do have a point, but I donıt know. Ares and I have fought since the first time I met him. He doesnıt like me much and I donıt like him at all."
"You are very confusing to me, Gabrielle. You know a god, yet he doesnıt like you and you donıt like him, yet you talk to him often!"
"Hum, put that way it is strange, but as I said it is a long story. The only reason I know Ares at all is because of another that he has always had an interest in. She was my soulmate."
"Ah, I know of soulmateıs, Gabrielle. To have a soulmate is a very fortunate thing. But you say she was your soulmate. Why?"
"She died, in Japa half a moon ago."
"Ah, that would explain your deep sadness, Gabrielle. To lose the life of a soulmate is like losing the greatest part of your own life."
"Gods can be insensitive to anything but their own problems, Gabrielle. So it would seem with your god of war."
I nodded. "Thatıs what made me mad, grandfather. Ares promised to return my soulmate to me if I would give him a child. He tried to play on my sorrow and my soulmateıs life for his own gain. I could not condemn any child to such a life, grandfather, not even for my soulmateıs life, or my own. It sickens me that I could even consider such a thing."
He shook his head sadly, and then took a moment to pour more tea. When he sat back down his wise old eyes looked into mine and he smiled. "Gabrielle, you are but a mortal. Your god played on the fact that you are mortal. Do not be ashamed of considering something that would return your heartıs desire. Instead see that you had the courage to turn from such a course, giving up what you want most, to protect an innocent from such a life. Your very action brings honor to you. We all have thoughts and temptations, Gabrielle, but you were able to turn them down. Think not of the temptation but your final action. Your honor is great, Gabrielle. You honor yourself, your soulmate, and her memory."
I nodded. "I hope so, grandfather. I could do no less than Xena, and I know she turned Ares down first."
He paled, suddenly sitting back away from me. "Xena. Do not say that monster is your soulmate, Gabrielle. I would not believe you could have anything to do with her!"
"You know of her, grandfather?" I asked, surprised.
"I do, Gabrielle. A greater evil has never been visited on my people than Xena. Her army slaughtered people by the thousands. I lost a son to her. How can you condone her, Gabrielle?"
"The Xena you know I could not condone, grandfather, nor would she condone me. Had our paths crossed Iım sure she would have killed me the first day," I grinned. "Iım afraid I was rather brash and naïve when I met Xena. The Xena you know is long dead, grandfather. A demigod named Hercules turned her from her evil ways. She had spent the past six years doing anything and everything she could to try to atone for her evil days. She has been a staunch warrior for peace and good, destroying evil wherever she found it. She allowed herself to be killed so she could destroy a demon in the afterlife that had trapped forty thousand souls. She stayed dead when I could have brought her back because she feared those souls would not rest if she were alive. Xena is my mentor, grandfather. I know of no one more honorable than she."
He studied me a moment then shook his head. "You tell a most incredible tale, Gabrielle, but I have glimpsed the way of your soul. I must believe you, though I must also admit to no love for your soulmate. I can see that, if she traveled with you she must indeed have changed a great deal. I think perhaps you are a good part of what has changed her. I sense no evil in you and by your actions with your god you show yourself to be most honorable. Therefore I believe you when you say Xena has changed. I mourn her loss to you."
"Thank you, grandfather. I understand why you would harbor ill feelings for her and so would she. You would not be the first she had met to feel that way, but even so I have seen her help the very people that hated her, without any expectation of changing their minds. In truth, she felt she deserved any and all animosity to her and felt she could never atone for the evil she had done. Still, she went on doing what she could to help people without regard for her own safety. As for me, I am not the pure person you think me. In this very inn I killed two men last night."
He nodded. "Two very evil men who attacked you, Gabrielle. Is this not the type of good you just told me your soulmate did? How is it different for you?"
"But I just killed them without trying to merely disable them as I have done in the past."
"Perhaps this is more the result of knowledge and wisdom, Gabrielle. These men were killers, bent on doing you harm. Had you merely disabled them they would have tried for you again, perhaps ambushed you."
"Does that justify taking a life without remorse? I am no judge, yet I condemned them to death and felt no sorrow. Does that make me any better than them?"
"I think that the difference is in motivation, Gabrielle. They sought to take your freedom as they have done to many others. You sought to protect your freedom not to deprive someone else. As far as remorse, why would you feel remorse for such as they were?"
"Itıs not so much them, grandfather, but that I could take a life, any life, without remorse."
He chuckled. "Gabrielle. If you truly feel no remorse, why is it an issue now? If you truly felt nothing it would not be an issue. You berate yourself for not caring, but the very fact that you think of it at all shows that you do care. You must remember, we are unfortunate enough to live in a time when there are very many that seek to gain by our misfortune and there are few to protect the less fortunate, or less powerful. Someone like you is very rare, Gabrielle. You care for those that cannot defend themselves from the predator. The men you killed were self-serving predators who cared nothing for anyone elseıs life or property except for their own gain. Can you be naïve enough yet, to doubt your fate at their hands?"
I shook my head. "No. They made that plain enough."
"Then why castigate yourself over what you did? How many other lives have you saved by ridding the world of those two?"
"I find your logic makes good sense, grandfather, but still, it bothers me."
"Well it should, Gabrielle. Taking of any life should bother you, but I think you need not worry until it doesnıt bother you."
"I fear that is the way I am going."
"Not by what you have said here."
A woman appeared in the door and Jai Zhong spoke with her rapidly, then turned to me.
"It would seem that we have talked away the morning, Gabrielle. Would you take the mid day meal with an old man?"
"I would be honored, grandfather."
To my surprise the woman, Jaiıs daughter, Mai Sung, had more than enough food for both of us, so someone was watching my whereabouts. She quickly set the meal, put water on for more tea, and then she was gone.
Jai served me, and then prepared his own dish. We ate in relative silence. I had so much to think about! My mind was awhirl with the things we had talked of. He was just an old man and I had met many such in my recent life but he was very insightful, very wise, and there was something about him that I trusted. I realized that in the past few hours I had told him things I had told no one else, some very private and important things in my life that I never thought I would tell most of my friends much less a stranger. Yet here I was letting it out to a man I had first seen in a storm the night before. I felt comfortable, safe with him, is all I could come up with when I doubted my wisdom in telling him these things. He felt like a very warm caring grandfather, someone a girl could get comfortable with without fear of being lectured or made small of. I trusted him, though I knew I was going on instinct, a gut feeling alone. Never in my life had I trusted anyone so completely, though by nature I was or had been a very trusting soul, at least until the world taught me otherwise. Well, that wasnıt quite true, I had trusted Xena from the first moment I met her, though again I couldnıt tell you why. Not that I had told her everything, I hadnıt, but that was more to do with her attitude than mine, at first.
With the thoughts of Xena my mood plummeted again and I was no longer hungry. Without realizing it I sat with my chopsticks in my hand, staring vacantly at my bowl, not seeing it or anything else. My thoughts were far away on top of Mt. Fuji.
"Gabrielle, what has happened to make you so sad?" Jai asked and I realized there were tears on my cheeks.
"My world has been destroyed, grandfather, by the one I loved most. I am lost, my life ended," I whispered hardly knowing what I was saying.
"I find that very hard to believe, Gabrielle, for you are very young yet, with many years ahead of you."
"Years of emptiness, grandfather. Years of living with half of my soul dead and gone."
"You speak of your soulmate as the great loss that it would be and yet you say that she and not her killer destroyed your world. I do not understand, Gabrielle."
Slowly, painfully I told him everything from our first momentıs view of a besieged Higuchi until Xenaıs refusal to allow me to save her. It was a long agonizing time for me with many tears; more grief than should be possible in one soul. Eventually I had told the story completely, then sat sobbing like a newly spanked child. I felt strong hands on my shoulders and I leaned into him releasing my grief, unable to stop.
Sometime later this gentle old man removed my weapons then lifted me into his arms and placed me on his bed, covering me with a blanket. He sat holding my hand, his other hand pressed against my head, while I lay with my head pressed to his leg and cried myself to sleep.
I woke to silence. The sun was gone and a single candle spread its soft glow from the table across the small room. Jai no longer sat on the edge of the pallet but beside it, his hand lying on the bed where I clutched it in both of mine. For a moment I lay quiet getting my bearings and enjoying the solitude and the touch of the strong hand in mine. I felt drained, empty, my ordeal having sapped my emotions until there was nothing left but an inner quiet to match the quiet of the room. Reluctantly I rolled onto my back, releasing my grip on the frail looking hand that was so strong and had comforted me so much. I looked up to see kind eyes looking down at me.
"How long did I sleep?" I asked stretching.
"Long enough to satisfy your need, I think," he answered.
I smiled at him. "And intrude on your day, tying you to me."
"To help someone is never an intrusion, Gabrielle, but one of the finest reasons to live. Iım sure you have discovered this yourself," he answered, and then stood holding out his hand. "Come. I have kept our evening meal warm."
When I sat down at the table, after a few moments to freshen up, I felt much better and strangely at peace, though there were still things I must confront and I knew that what had gone before was only a small part of my hurt.
We ate silently though I thought I could see questions in his eyes. I started to say something once and he silenced me, telling me we would talk after our meal, that I needed nourishment for the body as well as the soul. When we were finished he poured more tea then cleared the table. When he sat back down he turned those wise old eyes on me again and smiled.
"What were you going to say, Gabrielle?"
"I just wanted to thank you for listening to my troubles, grandfather."
He was silent, studying me, and I nervously looked down then lifted my tea for a sip.
"Will you answer something for me, Gabrielle?"
I looked back up at him but his features were blank, with no indication of his emotions or feelings, something his people did very well.
"Of course, grandfather, if I can," I answered, curious to know what part of my story he had a question about."
"Why are you so angry with your soulmate?" he asked quietly, and his question was like a punch in the stomach. I was stunned.
"What? Iım not, I Iım not" I answered, suddenly confused.
"Why are you so angry with her, Gabrielle?"
"Ino, I." Tears sprang to my eyes and I felt a wave of anger swamp me.
"Because she abandoned me!" I shouted. "She lied to me! She deceived me!" I stood, knocking the chair over and paced the room, my anger uncontrollable, my fists clenched, angry tears flowing freely down my face. "She let Akemi use her again! Weıre soulmates and she cut me out of her life, planning her own death then doing it while sending me where I couldnıt help her! She left me!" I screamed then fell to my knees sobbing into my hands.
When I had cried out the worst of it, strong hands lifted me to my feet and held me until I could regain control. He led me back to my chair then poured me some fresh tea, handing it to me. I took it in both hands absorbing the warmth into my hands and sipped at it. He handed me a damp warm cloth and I cleaned my face, embarrassed and shocked at my outburst.
"Iım sorry." I started but he placed his hand on mine and stopped me.
"That is not necessary, Gabrielle. You are merely confronting your demons, a good thing for us all, but very difficult to do."
"But I donıt hate her, grandfather!" I protested.
"Of course not, Gabrielle. Hate has nothing to do with what you are feeling. You are angry because she hurt you, but anger and hate are not the same thing."
"But how can I be so angry with her? It isnıt right, grandfather. She gave her life to save forty thousand souls."
"Gabrielle, because your soulmate did a noble thing for so many does not mean you should not be angry. What she did for them and to you are two different things. From your story and all you say of her I feel that she only wanted to protect you."
"But she didnıt, grandfather. She destroyed me. I feel like like she cast me out of her life. She never gave me a chance to be part of her decisions. She excluded me as if I didnıt matter."
"Gabrielle, how long have you known Xena?"
"Six years, grandfather."
"From what you have told me she always tries to do whatıs right, is that not so?"
"Yes, but I should have been included in her plans."
"I think you were very much part of her plans, Gabrielle."
"No. She left me out of everything."
"Why would she do that?"
"I donıt know!" I said, my anger rising again.
"Gabrielle, Xena was a driven person. She was driven by hate when I knew her and she was driven by a need to atone for her deeds while you knew her. In all that time has Xena loved anything, that you knew of?"
"I thought she loved me, but Iım not sure anymore," I answered, looking down at my hands as they shook on the table.
"You said something in your sleep that may help, but confused me. You said, the damage is done. Donıt wait for me. Donıt follow me, please, I couldnıt stand it if you did.ı Then you said. No. Donıt follow me Xena, I have to be alone. I canıt see you now. Your death has destroyed me.ı"
I nodded staring at my empty cup. "When I left Japa I couldnıt face her so I left a scroll asking her not to follow me. Some of that is from the scroll."
"I do not understand, Gabrielle. I thought Xena was dead when you left Japa?"
"She was," I agreed, "but her spirit followed me. I couldnıt handle it, so I left, leaving her a note."
He was silent for some time and I was unable to read his face, then he slowly shook his head and sighed.
"I am an old man, Gabrielle. Today you have told me the most incredible thing I have ever heard in my many years. You told me of a great friendship that endured incredible hardships and grew into the love of two soulmates. You told me of an incredible battle, both here and in the afterlife. You told me of the incredible selfless sacrifice of a woman I once hated for her evil deeds. You told me of her soulmateıs incredible struggle through that battle and the struggle to save her afterwards, and you told me of the anguish, pain, and hurt of that loss. Then you tell me that your soulmate has transcended death in order to stay with you. Finally you tell me that in your sorrow and anger at your soulmate, you fled, leaving her soul to wander without you."
He paused to let what he had said sink in and I felt an awesome sense of what I had done overwhelm me.
"Gabrielle. Your soulmate may have made a mistake that hurt you deeply but can you not see that she did it because she loves you? Can you not see that she loves you so much that she transcends even death to be with you?"
He was silent watching me.
"I " I could not form the words. I seemed without the breath to form the words. "Grandfather" I was at a loss. Tears came to my eyes again.
"Gabrielle, you may have some very valid things to work on with your soulmate. Perhaps your sense of abandonment and rejection is justified, perhaps not, but that is something you should be talking to Xena about. You feel she deserted you, Gabrielle, but in your anger, what have you done to her?"
The sinking feeling in my stomach seemed to carry the very blood from me and I felt the ice of deep dread shiver my whole body.
"Oh, grandfather, what have I done?" I cried in anguish. "What have I done?"
Continued in Lost Soul 4 - Marking Time