4th Part of The Darkness and The Light series
By Mikael Helbo Kjaer
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and all other original characters portrayed in the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess are the exclusive property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA and Universal Television. No infringement is intended by this piece of fiction. The story is however the exclusive property of the above mentioned author. This story can be freely copied and distributed online under the condition that any website or list informs the author about the posting or the author approaches the website or list with the story for posting. The story and this note must be presented unedited except for any HTML added for presentation purposes. All other situations must be negotiated with the author as named above. No commercial gain must come from the usage of this story.
Setting: Post FIN
Sexual references: GEN (with subtext)
Violence: This story contains scenes with and descriptions of intense violence
Summary: 4th installment of the series 'The Darkness and The Light'. This story sees Xena track the heartbroken Gabrielle, who is searching for some kind of healing for her ailing soul. Trekking all across Asia and divided by a 2 year time difference Xena can only hope that the darkness revealed in Gabrielle won't consume her friend before she reaches her.
Author's notes: First of all I want to thank everyone for their nice reviews. By the way I've got myself a website http://www.icebear.dk, where I have posted all of my stuff as a complete set of HTML and PDF files. This story is in a different setting and mood from anything I've written before and I am trying to adapt to it. I hope it works out. This is the last episode, where we see the life of Gabrielle as told to Xena. The two final installments in the series will no longer be about Xena following Gabrielle through the past. I've based the General in this story on Sun Tzu as I imagine him from the Art of War treatise and how he'd be in the Xenaverse. In a way this story and the next are the climax of the series. By the way to any history buffs amongst you I know that Buddhism only reached China in the 1st century AD and that the Mongols didn't attack until the Sung dynasty, but this is the Xenaverse, where Jesus' name was Eli and Caesar was defeated by Xena.
From the ship Xena looked at the churning mass of people that filled the Chinese city. She loathed having to be surrounded by so many people. In all her years as a warlord she was constantly looking over shoulder for the blade she was sure would strike if she was not ready. The years as a hero had done nothing to reduce the need for her to be constantly alert, for her life of adventure had been even more dangerous than her life as a warlord.
"Are you disembarking here Xena-san?" The Samurai captain, who had been drafted to bring her back from Higuchi to the Chinese mainland, sounded relieved at the thought of being rid of her. The presence of what, to his people, was a spirit of a dead hero given form, seemed to unnerve him, just as it had done to the different Lords she had gone to see on her short jaunt across the islands of the rising sun.
As the ship made its way into the port, Xena thought back on the last three months.
She had left the Amazons the same day she had learned of Gabrielle's fall into darkness. The Amazons thought she had left to track down her blonde bard. In reality Xena had needed to be alone, at least for a while. She needed a place to let out her anger and frustration and the trackless waste lands that lay between her and the mountains, guarding the way into India, seemed like the perfect place. She was not angry at Gabrielle. She didn't care to blame her friend. No, she had looked long and hard inside herself. She knew the truth and she felt guilty for letting Gabrielle become like her, for encouraging that in the end. She felt guilty for being a teacher of darkness.
In the end Gabrielle had ended up just like most people she got close to. She had given the brilliant light of Gabrielle's soul the gift of her darkness, remade the naÔve farm girl as a warrior and in the end left her friend with powerful abilities for warfare and no one in the world to walk the path through life with her, surrounded only by casual acquaintances and estranged family, separated from the world by time and carrying experiences unlike any other person on this world. Xena had ridden through the plains contemplating their lives the entire time.
It hadn't been easy finding any trace of Gabrielle as Xena had passed through the mountains down into India itself. Sure a short blond woman with a dragon tattoo, wearing amazon leathers and a couple of exotic weapons weren't something the Indian saw every day, but anyone would forget such a thing passing by after two years. After erring around in the mountainous regions of India, which they hadn't visited on their first trip there, for a while, she had gotten lucky.
Gabrielle would never allow others to come to harm, not even when she was seeking something to alleviate the darkness and violent instincts now apparent in her mind and soul. She had come upon a violent battle between two rivaling factions fighting over the control over some trade route. Her intervention had been remembered because she had not only saved many people from death at the swords of both factions but also established a lasting peace in the area. Xena remembered with clarity, how men and their wives had told her of the sad blonde, who had cried as she fought, but who had still refused to put down her weapons until the last of both groups had left their lands, a woman capable and caring enough to negotiate a peace between factions that had been at war for months.
Gabrielle had gone through India seeking out monasteries, hermits and every wise man that she came near. Xena knew better than anyone what she had been seeking. Gabrielle was looking for some kind of way to appease the darkness that now lived in Gabrielle soul. It was probably like having a hatred aimed at every one and no one. It most likely was threatening to boil over every second, just like hers had been before she had met that little blonde farmer girl, who had wanted to follow her into adventure and gotten so much more than that in the bargain.
However she soon lost track of the bard again. Gabrielle had spent some time in a monastery near the greatest mountain range to the North. The monks there told Xena, how Gabrielle had learned the many ideas and practices of their religion called Buddhism during her stay, but when the monks, who had grown to care for the brilliant little blonde, asked for her to stay, she had revealed to them that their way wasn't what she sought. She had left the very next day. She had given them no destination or goal. That night she had simply gone away on her white horse never to return.
Still Xena hadn't given up. On instinct she had followed the trade road towards Chin, which they had followed several times together before. Her instincts hadn't been wrong and she had been able to pick up Gabrielle's trail again, when she learned, that a foreigner with hair like the sun and the image of a dragon of the Far East on her back had spent a few weeks in a small village helping to cure a dangerous disease with her knowledge of healing herbs. The villagers remembered her heading east into unknown lands instead of following the traders into Chin. Proud of her friend's achievement but still heavy in her heart Xena had gone on into the lands east of Chin seeking her friend.
Only Gabrielle had changed her route again. Her tracks long cold and gone with the wind disappeared as Xena got deeper into the jungles of the east. For nearly a month she had erred around in the lands south and east of Chin asking questions and getting no answers. Then chance had intervened on her side.
Arriving in a small port city she had encountered the captain of a Chinese merchant ship. He spoke up; when she quite by chance asked questions about a blonde woman with a dragon tattoo on her back traveling the lands around here. He told her that he had met her, when she bought passage on his ship to the islands of the rising sun. He told of how troubled she had been by news from the land of the rising sun she must have heard in this port city. Everyone had heard about it as well back then. Japan was still troubled by the legacy of war left behind by Lord Yodoshi's armies, who were still roaming the lands back there, attacking and pillaging. She had revealed to him that she went to the islands to finish a job. A job she hadn't been able to do a year earlier. And he told of how the woman seemed to grow unhappier and more desolate each minute she came closer to that land. She had seemed to be expecting something to come to her, but nothing had come and it had saddened the woman greatly.
Xena remembered having been filled with conflicting emotions herself upon hearing where Gabrielle's tracks went. She was unwilling to give up on her hunt for her friend, yet the prospect of going back to the land, where she had thought that she had found her final rest filled her with a fear she hadn't even been aware she could have. She had banished it like she had done with so many others in her life, but still it had spooked her. Even worse than that was the thought of coming near the realm of afterlife she had only recently escaped from. That land would probably never become a favorite of theirs no matter its great beauty. Still like all the times before during their adventures Xena had followed her heart to Nippon and sought its holder there.
It had not been easy to tread the soil of Nippon again for neither her nor Gabrielle. So Xena had known and learned. She quickly learnt to keep her identity secret to avoid scaring any villagers of another ghost from the beyond the grave. It didn't matter how corporeal she was. She also quickly found that Gabrielle was famous in the lands where she had landed. Her name and many affectionate titles were as popular with the people as were the stories of her two great adventures in their lands first her battles to rescue Xena's body and then her more recent adventure. To these people Gabrielle was renowned for great mercy and even more important great honor even in the face of having severe odds against her. Xena learnt that while many talked about her actions in the defeat of Yodoshi and the destruction of a lot of his army, many more honored Gabrielle as a samurai something almost unheard of in a land, where they had denied even her, the right to a katana a true warrior weapon.
On her first day in Nippon she learnt the entire story of Gabrielle from several people. It would seem that her bard had come ashore just as another of the supposedly dishonorable leaders of Yodoshi's armies decided to make his bid to rule over all of Japan. Gabrielle had reluctantly organized the defense of many villages and cities in the end saving many lives and forcing the armies to a standstill until the other lords of the island could field an army to stand against him. Gabrielle had managed to travel across the enemy occupied lands many times almost like a shadow, while leading defenseless people to safety until she had found herself in the middle of the centre of power in Japan called Osaka just as the warlord's final desperate power grab was in the offing. She had been instrumental in foiling the plots of the warlord to kill many local lords through deceit and poison. Still in the end in spite of her attempts to avoid it, she had seen herself forced to challenge the warlord to single combat having been made legally a samurai by the other lords. Gabrielle had easily defeated the man and ended the war that had ravaged Japan for almost a year. Yet no one had been able to tell Xena, what had happened after Gabrielle had won and so she had been forced to roam the islands looking for some hint to where Gabrielle was.
In the end she had been forced to reveal to the new Lord of Higuchi, who she was before she had been able to get a straight answer out of anyone. Gabrielle had left the islands just days after her victory seemingly eager to flee the home of so many of her worst memories, he told her. She had been given free passage back to the Chinese mainland and according to report setting ashore in the very port city now filling the coastline in front of her eyes. She had gained a little time on her friend and now found herself trailing her by a little under two years having spent nearly half a year either recovering or looking for her lost friend already. Gabrielle would become 27 years old in just under one moon.
Meanwhile the ship had glided towards a safe place to anchor in the mean time.
The crowds buffeted her left and right as she made her way from the bustling wharf. Her eyes wandered across the people studying them, looking for clues and dangers. More than a decade of habit made her do that, made her see the things others ignoring, assembling the clues from the way that certain buildings were just getting new roof tiles, how new lumber was used in many roof constructions instead of older wood and how the entire city buzzed of pent up energy seeming to finally have been released. "This is a city rebuilding from a battle or maybe even a war," she realized as she finally saw what she would need: An inn, where she could bed down for the night, allowing her to start out on her hunt for her friend early the next morning. Xena went over and put up her horse now named simply Nike in the inn's stables before heading inside.
The taproom was also bustling with travelers obviously attracted by the brisk trade. Xena went up and unceremoniously ordered a large port, some hot food, a room for the night and paid the barkeeper for her horse as well. Yet another time on her long trip she bemoan not having her bard around to share these comforts with and not the least to talk the price down. Xena had never really managed to get the hang of trading without drawing her weapons. Sensing a longer period in the wilds collecting furs or other valuables coming on by the weight of her purse, she went over a found herself an empty spot to sit with her food and drink. All around her in the airy inn people ate drank and made merry, filling the room with the clink of ceramics, eating utensils and the voices of happy men. Xena found her eyes once again roaming the inn and the road filled with people passing by just on the other side the railing. While slowly eating her food she found herself missing the banter that had always been so natural between her and Gabrielle and for lack of conversation she let her hearing guide her, let her sense the sounds behind the massive din of the room, wandering like a ghost from conversation to conversation until she heard: "…And then I saw her ride away from that wall of water she had created. I say the rumors are true. She was not just another warrior. She was something else, the daughter of a dragon at the very least. I saw her back once a brilliant dragon sat upon her skin and on the jackets of all her soldiers as well."
Xena was not even aware of it, before she was in the middle of the move. Her body was flying over the tables in a tumble her tongue yelling her warcry before she landed besides the frightened man and a table with a lot of startled men. She grabbed in by the collar and asked her voice almost having turned into a hiss: "Who were you talking about?"
The man swallowed for a while then stuttered his reply: "I am sorry great warrior. I am but a simple man. I didn't want to offend…"
"Cut out the apologies! The woman you were talking about. Who was she?" She enforced the question by slightly lifting the man from his seat by his collarbone.
His eyes squinting to keep his watery eyes from weeping in pain the man answered in a pained whisper: "I do not know her real name. She was the leader of the army, which protected this part of the land, during the Great War. I was but a lowly soldier, but she still rode out with her troops to save us, when the Green Dragon's soldiers had us encircled and his general threatened to slaughter us all. She could easily have sacrificed our unit and kept herself hidden, but she rode out into the trap she herself had set and rescued us. I am sorry I will not speak her real name for she forbade us to do so but around here she is known as the Little Dragon. It is said that she had only told her true name to the Emperor and his Great General."
Xena let him go and felt a great amount of pain escape her just as she released a shuddering sigh. If Gabrielle hadn't been the Green Dragon, if she had been a savior to these people, then there was still hope, then she could still be reunited with her friend. They could be together. For the first time in months the light of hope returned to her. Xena looked down at the still shocked looking man. She realized from her good heart's perspective that it would be right and proper to apologize for her action, before it resulted in bad blood. She needed more information and this man could probably tell her more.
"I am sorry for attacking you. I just thought you spoke well of the Green Dragon from your mentions of dragons and I… Well I hate… such a… creature," Xena halting admitted wishing again that Gabrielle had been there to lend her the words or even better to smooth things like she always had.
The man said nothing for a while; he just massaged his obviously still hurting shoulder, and then finally nodded. "I guess that would be what I would do if I was able to jump like that," the man looked pointedly at Xena and then all the way past her shoulder towards the spot where she had launched herself from.
"I know it is a bit much to ask, but could you tell me, where G… I mean the Little Dragon went after the war ended," Xena guessed that it was the war she had seen traces of everywhere that he had spoken off.
"Well no. I don't know. All I know is that when she left the war was halfway over and that was almost a year ago. She was pulled away from here and put in command of a larger army up north. I heard from some of my soldier buddies that she led the last battle against the Green Dragon herself or at least at the side of the Great General. But then again it could be just a rumor, my friend you see wasn't at the battle himself, he was a guard at the Imperial Palace. But I don't know what has become of her after that. At least I know that the Green Dragon is dead and good riddance to that monster. But I am sure the Imperial court can tell you. Last thing I heard they were doing something to honor the Warrior Bard or Poet or what ever it was those northerners called our dragon-backed heroine. Bah, they have no idea…," the man began ranting about how she had been their hero and that those northerners were just trying to usurp her and were probably keeping her from coming back here to be properly honored by those people she had truly been there to protect.
Xena suddenly cut him off with another question: "This war when did it end? I mean when was the last battle fought?"
The man stared at her for a few seconds then after thinking and mumbling through a slow count of months answered: "Five months almost on the day. Of course the peace has lasted a lot longer for us down here in the south"
"I've gained almost two years. I am almost caught up with her. This is my lucky break even if this fellow isn't the most trustworthy witness," Xena exulted in her mind. If she was lucky Gabrielle still lingered somewhere in the north probably enjoying a vacation to get over what must have been over a year in the field as a commander… Gabrielle had been commander of an army for over a year. It was a strange thought that her bard, who had for so long tried to end war and hate in the world through love and understanding, had become the long term commander for an army, while seeking a way to heal her darkened soul. Xena's mind was boggled at the strange contradiction of that thought. "Thank you," she idly commented and stalked back towards her abandoned seat.
It was at the crack of dawn. A light fog had spilled across the lands of bamboo and undergrowth as a horse came hammering through the peaceful landscape. The warhorse thundered across a wooden bridge as the rider drove her horse forward at the highest speed she could press her horse to without causing it permanent damage. She was heading north and had been for many days now. She was chasing a friend looking for her soul mate and she was losing her patience as she felt the goal coming closer. She continued on only stopping to avoid killing her mount and feed her body. But her eyes and bearing revealed the restlessness of her soul. She passed on towards the great city in the distance.
Xena looked upon the extremely well guarded palace and its burly guards. For a moment her darkness suggested that it would be much more impressive and fun to just burst in there. To beat up those pathetic guards and everyone in her way until she found what all parts of her soul demanded: her blonde warrior bard standing before her. But as so often these last years she repressed her darker nature and instead walked up to the building. "I have important business with the Great General, would you get someone to bring me to him," she said in her best attempt at her most haughty but still commanding voice.
"Sure just present your pass," the one guard answered and smiled a little too widely for it to be a legitimate response for her respectful request.
"Listen to me. I have come to speak with the Great General about the Warrior Bard that helped him against the Green Dragon. Now either you give him my message or I beat you up and give it to him myself," she meant the last part the last few nights of either riding or walking having completely worn her patience out.
"You don't give any orders around here woman…," Xena's fist sending the man into slumber land ended his unfortunate sentence before it got him killed and resulted in the other guard gasping in air to call out in alarm. Only he never got that far because Xena kicked her armored boot into his not so armored balls and sent him to the ground with a pained whimper. Knowing full well that with such a large palace and probably a fitting number of guards she only had moments before either other guards or people on the street sounded an alarm, she applied the Pinch on the unfortunate and almost crying guard, who was to his misfortune still conscious.
"You only have seconds to live. Now tell me, where is the Great General?" She asked the suddenly gasping man with a growing nosebleed.
"He… He is in the northern compound, west wing I think. He is usually training with his sword at this time," the guard said through his futile gasp for air.
Xena nodded, undid the Pinch and knocked him unconscious. As quick as she could she dragged the two bodies into the guardroom. Inside she grabbed some guard clothing and a spear and set off, while trying to cover up her gender and weapons. She headed north in the gigantic palace hoping to find an important looking man, who was in the middle of some sword practice.
Her search leads her to a large hall obviously meant for practicing martial arts with wooden walls covered in holders for many different and often exotic weapons or big banner with Chinese proverbs written in the same dialect of the Chin language that had been written in the treatise that had hinted at Gabrielle's presence in the Empire of Chin. A man, naked from his waist up, was working his way through a series of very complex sword katas and techniques. Some techniques were from Chin and India. There were even some reminiscence of Roman and Greek sword fighting styles. Then he surprised her by making a move that she had only seen direct student of her or Ares use before and there she realized that he had obviously met her bard, and somehow learned sword fighting from or with her. Her acute hearing warned her that her little break-in had been discovered and that guards were heading her way. Slowly she slipped into the room and discarded her disguise. She made no attempt to hide her entry.
The man spun about and beheld Xena standing tall, dark and dangerous before him. He seemed taken aback for a moment then regained his bearing and fell into a comfortable guard seemingly awaiting an attack. "So the Witch sends assassins to kill me instead of the Emperor now. I should be honored," he commented and held out his sword in a customary greeting she had often seen Borias' raiders use before a battle of honor a battle to the death.
"I am not here to kill you. At least I hope I'm not. I am here to ask you where I can find the one you have called the Warrior Bard, the warrior woman who helped you against the Green Dragon, the warrior woman who has a three toed dragon on her back," she asked.
He seemed to fall silent and his guard dipped further to the ground. Xena knew at that moment that both she and Gabrielle was superior warrior to this man. A lifetime of experiences had led them to expect surprises and to ignore the banter of a potential enemy before or during a fight, it could get you killed. But maybe this man was a better commander than fighter. She didn't want to judge him too early. "I am afraid I am not willing to speak about the Warrior Bard. You look like you serve my enemy," he said.
"I do not. I am the Warrior Bard's best friend," Xena asserted.
Suddenly a huge group of armed guards burst in from both sides and surrounded her. She estimated that she could still escape, but it was getting dicey.
"Anyone could claim that. Prove it," he commanded, suddenly speaking from a much stronger position.
"I know her name. I know the name of her place of birth. I know the exact time of the exact day of the exact month of her birth. I have heard every tale she has ever told. I have walked the path of life with her for six years. I have the scars, the emotions, the love in my heart to prove that I have met the greatest person in this world," Xena was surprised at her own suddenly eloquence and for a moment wished that her beloved friend had heard her.
"Come towards me," he asked in a much more benign tone and motioned for the guards to allow her to come closer.
Xena found herself standing alone besides the man. "Tell me her name and the name of the place she was born, then I may know if you speak the truth," he whispered.
"Her name is Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Poteidaia is the name of the village in Greece, where she was born," Xena answered falling into a low tone of voice, hoping that there was no reason better than paranoia for them to speak like this.
He nodded and sighed. "I see. I can tell you everything you need to know, but I have very little time as I am preparing to lead an army into the field to roust the last shambles of the Green Dragon's army from the northwest. But I know of a man infinitely better suited to tell you about your friend. He was with her the entire time," he explained. He walked over to a small desk in a corner, wrote something on a small piece of paper and gestured for a soldier.
"Bring this to Master Fong and kindly guide this warrior to him as well," he said and gestured towards Xena.
Xena and the soldier walked through the labyrinthine halls and paths of the palace heading to a seemingly outlying one story quarter, which was surrounded by beautiful and well kept garden complete with a small stream running through it. Xena barely took time to view this marvel as the soldier knocked on a door and went inside to be greeted by the grumbling hoarse voice of what was obviously an older man. After a minute the soldier came back outside and gestured for her to go inside.
Xena walked inside to be greeted with a truly Spartan quarter. On the floor in one corner lay a mat obviously for sleeping in front of which a yellow orange robed elderly man sat. Before him lay a low but wide table filled with paper and the implements for writing.
"Come inside my dear. I understand you are the friend of the Light of my life. My beautiful tiger did say that she had lived with and been touched by a dragon that must have been you… Right" The elderly man mused and gestured for her to find a place to sit in front of him. "I am Master Fong," he explained.
"I am sorry for the nature of my quarters. You should have pillows to be seated comfortably on. At least if you plan to hear the entire tale of our friend," he explained.
"Just skip to the end and tell me where Gabrielle is," Xena suggested impatient to get to her, when she was close that she could nearly smell her.
"Ah, my new friend I think not. You see, for you to understand the end of any tale no matter how funny or sad, you must be told the entire tale. Please my dear you will be happier for it. Yes," he finished his explanation with an encouraging nod like he was a confused old man, who had already heard her answer, but Xena could see in his eyes an ancient wisdom that this man somehow shared with people like Lao Ma and Eli.
"Alright," she agreed hoping that she wouldn't regret it. But then again she told herself one more day didn't really matter as long as the one didn't become many.
"Well then. Let's start at the beginning shall we. Let me tell you about how I came to meet the small woman that we both know is more than her beauty lets on," he fell into the very same storyteller tone of voice Xena had heard so many times before on the road and in taverns, when Gabrielle or some other bard began their tales."
Gabrielle stood looking out over the beautiful valley covered in a forest of bamboo trees rustling in the gentle but moist mountain wind. Her eyes slowly glided upwards to fall upon the stone structure, which nestled against the top of the next mountain. The temple was ancient and obviously built in several stages and at different times judging from the various architectures apparent in the buildings. She almost sighed at the thought of having to travel through at least one valley and a village before getting to it. It looked like a grand place and if the stories of this place were true, it could hold the answers to the questions still plaguing her after nearly half a year of traveling the Far East.
She had over the time after her breakdown in the woods of the new amazon lands come to terms with her horrible act of violence that day, what worried her was her potential to repeat such an act. Would she one day do the bidding of evil forces instead of good? Even more important what was her purpose, her path in life? She had always thought that her path lay with Xena in their friendship, but she was not so sure anymore. Xena had died and life had gone on. She had found no one in any of the places she had visited, who been able to help her find the answers to her questions. Some had tried but most had just preached their religion to her.
This place that she was approaching would be her last attempt. Maybe they could help her find answers to the darkness plaguing her dreams, tell her why a person, who had always wanted to heal and help the poor and the innocent around her, was even capable of the acts of violence she had committed. Maybe even tell her why her heart and mind seemed to be drawn towards being a warrior and fighting the forces of evil rather than the blissful calm of just settling down in Poteidaia or Amphipolis as a healer. She should have outgrown her wanderlust and the dreams of adventure of her youth, she should have moved beyond any guilt driven continuation of Xena's mission in life. But somehow she felt she couldn't, it was like she needed to be out here helping people even now in her time of doubt. She had little guilt to redeem and none of it was of the same magnitude as Xena's.
The temple was told to be the home of an order of wise and peaceful monks, but they were also said to be amongst the greatest and wisest martial artists in all of Chin. Their wisdom and enlightenment supposedly enabling them to perform feat such as those she had seen Xena do many times, while being renowned as wise and good. They could be the ones to help her. Gabrielle walked back from the edge of the road towards Ghost awaiting her patiently like always.
Gabrielle smiled and nuzzled her white horse's mane. "Be patient my friend I am sure, I'll be able to find us a warm place to stay for the night," she said knowing very well that she was mirroring how Xena had been around Argo, but these days she finally understood. You could bond with an animal on such a level that you understood each other. At first Ghost had just been another horse to her, but over time they had bonded and now they could work together like a team.
Ghost whinnied and snorted. "Yeah and I will see about a couple of apples as well," Gabrielle answered with a smile and gently tapped her feet against Ghost's flanks her sais rattling slightly as they set out towards the village set at the bottom of the mountain on top of which the legendary temple awaited her.
Gabrielle rode calmly into the small farming village. She was dressed in one of the many royal-blue samurai kimono and hakama sets that the grateful people of Higuchi had given her as a replacement for some of her amazon clothing and other possessions that she had lost in her battle against the leftovers of Yodoshi's army and its dishonorable leader. She knew very well that it made her look exotic, but Gabrielle was well aware that her mere looks were enough to do that in Chin and so she kept wearing the comfortable and warmer clothing that she had gotten so used to wearing during her busy times on the eastern islands.
She noticed how the people in the village looked upon her with surprise, doubt and maybe a little fear. Gabrielle knew from her own life experience both as a peasant and as a traveler why. She was a foreigner and even worse she was an armed foreigner. She rode into town on a warhorse, wearing foreign clothes, carrying sai in her boots as well as a large amazon bow with a full quiver of arrows and a katana on her horse. The katana was been another gift from Japan forged for her to use in the final duel against the treacherous warlord that had been ravaging the lands after Yodoshi's destruction. The samurai made a great deal out of their most prized weapon type and she had been taught the proper ways of using and treating it, finishing the teachings she had been given by Xena and Kenji on their first trip to Japan. She had been named a samurai and given the honors afforded to one just to gain her chance to fight him, but they had taken neither the title nor the weapon back after she had defeated the warlord. Anyway that all added up to her being an unwelcome sight here even if she thought of herself as no threat.
It came as no surprise to her that the village didn't have an inn or tavern. The people around here didn't need one so far from any trade routes and so she found herself having to try to make some kind of arrangement with one of the locals for a place to sleep dry and for Ghost to stay. She was running low on resources just as they had done a lot in the early days of her and Xena traveling together, but there were probably no one around here, who would give her what she needed just for some story of Xena... She could of course tell of one of their adventures in Chin. She set out speaking the local dialect to the best of her ability trying to find someone in the mood for a few stories.
The stars were twinkling in the sky, before she could slip away from the party the nice family had arranged for her. The villagers had been so excited, when they had learned she was a storyteller that they had immediately put her and Ghost up in the richest family's house and stables, while arranging for a large party, where she could tell her tales and she had talked herself hoarse not just telling about Lao Ma and Xena, but also about her own adventures and how the world beyond the valley was like. It had been a pleasant evening and it had filled her with a warm joy to find such humanity and familiarity in people so far away from Greece or the Amazon nation.
She felt a pang of home sickness for Greece, until she realized that next to nothing awaited her there. There was no place to return to, no one who awaited her there except maybe the daughter of her best friend, whose mere presence was a constant painful reminder what had been lost and an estranged sister, who should have been younger than her, but who now looked a lot like their mother had, when she had last seen her. The amazons she herself had moved to a land far to the north and east of Greece. Still Greece would always be home in some way even if it was in the feel of the land and the myriads of memories that nearly every back road, village and tavern brought forth in her mind. Shaking her head out of the contemplative thoughts that she always had at night before going to sleep the short haired blonde reached out with a muscled arm and closed the shutters of the window. Tomorrow was supposed to be a busy day and she would probably be more diplomatic towards the monks if she was rested.
Gabrielle rode towards the archway leading into a large courtyard. Before her the painted stone faÁade of the monastery towered like the battlements of Troy. The horseshoes of Ghost made loud echoes as she rode through the unguarded opening and into the large court on the other side. The inside looked completely deserted. Slowly Gabrielle dismounted and asked Ghost to wait, while she scouted around.
In the end of the court opposite the entrance a large stone staircase led to a huge and heavy looking set of iron shod double doors. Gabrielle walked up to them and looked from side to side. On the right hand door some kind of door hammer was mounted. She grabbed the heavy bronze dragon figure, lifted it and let go. The hammer hit a metal plate on the door and an echoing bang was heard all over the courtyard. Gabrielle stepped back from the door and waited.
A small hatch opened besides the metal plate after nearly a minute. A bald Chinese man's face appeared and asked with irritation apparent in his voice: "Yes, what do you want?"
"I seek answers to what troubles me," Gabrielle answered having beckoned entry in several temples and monasteries over the course of her recent tour of the East and now knew that a certain amount of formality was expected.
"We don't train women to be warriors. Go back to your home and do what is expected of women there," the man said in a very insulting tone of voice.
Gabrielle asked what ever gods there were for patience and counted to three inside before she answered him. "I am not here to become a warrior. I am one already. I hoped you might have wisdom to offer that could stop me from choosing the wrong path in life," she explained trying to remain civil taking her mind of his insult by imagining what Xena would have done to the annoying little monk.
"I said go away, lying won't get you anywhere. The rules say that only warriors may enter this temple seeking wisdom," he explained patiently as if talking to a village idiot.
"I am a warrior," Gabrielle protested.
"You are not. You are a foolish woman. I have never seen a woman capable of wielding much more than a knitting needle. And I know I never will. Go! Away!" He seemed about to close the small hatch.
"Why don't you come out here, then I can prove my abilities to you," Gabrielle said in honeyed tones, while her recalcitrant mind was filled with images of beating the crap out of the chauvinistic bastard.
"Bah," he said and slammed the hatch shut in disgust.
Gabrielle fumed for a few seconds, but fully realized that attacking the door was pointless. Still she was not about to give up. That simply wasn't in her character. Gabrielle stepped back from the gate and took a good look at the building and immediately, like both Xena and Autolycus had indirectly taught her, saw the best way into the fortified temple. She jogged back to Ghost and got her katana of the horse in case of any serious problems arising. She told Ghost to be patient a little longer then jogged up to where the faÁade of the inner gatehouse and the wall met. Using the decorations and edges she slowly crawled up the sheer surface making her way up onto the slanted tile roof and then quite easily ran over the top of the gatehouse.
Her eyes fell upon the courtyard on the other side of the gatehouse. Hundreds of acolytes and monks where sitting in quiet meditation before a centrally raised dais, where several much older men were sitting in the very same meditative positions. Gabrielle saw and heard a smaller puffy monk, wearing the same yellow orange flowing robes as many of the people sitting in the courtyard, run out of the gatehouse and to join the ranks of the meditating monks. With a quirky smile she decided to be polite and await the end of their meditation before she would present her case again. She seated herself on the edge of the roof with her feet playfully dangling over the edge and waited.
A gong rang somewhere in the many buildings Gabrielle had yet to enter and with a collective bow the monks rose almost as one and separated into disorderly groups walking towards their assigned tasks or what it was they did here. Gabrielle shook all her many muscles awake and vaulted off the roof landing quite elegantly on the stone floor of the inner courtyard. Several alarmed yells told her that her entrance had gotten noticed. "You insolent woman," a by now familiar voice rang across the courtyard.
Gabrielle so hoped that the bigoted monk would be amongst those she would end up proving her skill against. Of course, she almost had to remind herself, she would try solving this with talking first. "I ask for permission to sample the wisdom of this temple. I am a veteran warrior and did not come here to learn of the art of war, I came to learn the fabled wisdom of this place. I hope to learn how a warrior may control her dangerous abilities and avoid stepping on a path leading to darkness," she explained loudly allowing almost everyone in the courtyard to hear her words.
"Women have no place here. Leave now or will we remove you," the bigoted monk and a group of what probably were his students by their youthful looks approached threateningly. He was brandishing an iron staff, while his students looked like they were about to attack her unarmed. Gabrielle decided to take the safe route and unsheathed her Sai.
"Listen there is no reason for us to fight over this," Gabrielle said and almost couldn't stop herself from sounding insincere.
"No you are right. You have realized your mistake. We will escort you out," the monk said and smiled at her again like she was a complete idiot.
"You're not listening. I just want to talk a little with the masters of this place, hear if they have a few words of wisdom for me, then I will be gone," she suggested presuming and hoping that the irritating monk was not one of the leaders of this place.
Suddenly the voice of an elderly man called out over the court. "Shu, I think this woman should have the chance to prove her worth. If she is a warrior, as she says she is, then we won't break any rules, if we let her stay," the man smiled encouragingly at the questioning look shot at him by the younger monk.
"Good then we will test her," he mumbled and looked at the girl appraisingly.
"This is rather simple," he explained, "You called for the right to prove yourself. Now you can. You will fight three challenges against opponents of our choice with weapons and rules that we choose as well. Understood?"
Gabrielle nodded and studied the old man, who had stopped their confrontation. He was a tall and thin man, who was bald with a long white beard. He nodded at her querying glance as if to greet her. His eyes seemed full of merriment.
"Gather around," the monk called Shu commanded. "Notice the ring set in the floor. If you leave it you have forfeited the battle. The first challenge is to fight without weapons and the one who asks for mercy, leaves the ring or is knocked out has lost," he explained to her and looked pointedly at her weapons. She nodded and put down the Sais and the katana before stepping into the ring awaiting her opponent.
One of the larger students of the bigoted monk stepped into the ring and assumed a position directly opposite to her. Gabrielle fell into her customary battle stance and suddenly all thoughts and doubts left her mind. The bigoted monk smiled as he looked from the small woman to his large muscular student not knowing what lay hidden beneath Gabrielle's blue clothing.
Master Fong stared down upon the battle from the dais. The only other master still left outside in the hot midday sun was his friend Master Li. He watched with great interest how the blonde foreigner claiming to be a warrior fared against the best hand to hand fighter amongst the young students. They watched how the young woman easily ducked below the kicks of her opponent. She danced playfully around her opponent avoiding most of his attacks; ignoring those she couldn't avoid like they were but stings of a bug, but making only a few feinted attacks herself.
"She has a great defense. I wonder why she isn't attacking," his friend mused.
"I think she is looking for a way to put down her opponent without hurting him too much. From her speech earlier I think we are dealing with a reluctant warrior, who is grown afraid of her own abilities and maybe doubts her decisions. Oh, see," he commented as the woman ducked another one of the young student's telegraphed punches then suddenly stepped forward placing one of her legs behind him, put a hand on his chest and threw him over her hip down on the hard stone surface. He landed hard enough to be temporarily winded.
Gabrielle saw how the young man fought to get back up and continue the fight. She decided to end it was and as painless as possible. "I'm sorry," she said, stepped up besides his head and kicked him hard in the head with her heavy boots. He went out as a snuffed candle and stayed still, blood pooled on the stones. She immediately fell to her knees and checked him out, but it looked like he had only broken his nose. She rose and turned to look at the red faced monk.
"We shouldn't have to do this. Can't we just agree that I am a warrior?" She asked the fuming monk.
His eyes narrowed and he shook his head. "You still have two more challenges to conquer"; he stalked off to find her next opponent. Gabrielle knew that the monk would probably try to find someone dangerous or pick something he figured she couldn't do. Soon he returned with a smug smile and a man carrying a bow and a quiver.
"Your next challenge is to hit several targets with this weapon," he said and handed her the bow. Gabrielle suspecting trickery examined the bow, which was a good deal smaller but was made of harder wood than the amazon model hanging on Ghost's saddle right now. She felt a little unbalanced with this smaller model.
"Can I use a different bow?" She asked.
"Of course, but this is the most powerful bow known to all of Chin," he said with a superior smile.
"Yeah I am sure it is, but I am used to an amazon bow. Can I go fetch it?" She asked and glanced up at two man still standing on the dais. They nodded.
Gabrielle reentered the courtyard with her very different amazon bow and green fletched arrows. She walked up to the monk and asked what he wanted her to fire at. He looked a little disappointed for a moment, as if he had wished for her to have had no knowledge of using a bow or maybe his secret wish, that she had run away while she was outside, had been dashed.
"You must hit three targets, while remaining standing on that mark over there," he pointed at a worn white mark on the stones, "That wooden plank over there is your first target." He pointed at a typical archery target standing almost fifty paces away from the white mark. "Then you must hit the dove that I am going to release after my count of three and finally you must repeat the same thing with your eyes blindfolded," he smiled harshly as he told her of her final task. A soft murmur went through the crowd of students that had gathered and Gabrielle guessed that her final challenge was a small gift from the monk that was outside the normal scope of the challenges, but the two masters on the dais seemed to accept it after a short series of comments.
"Let him do it. I bet you that she will hit all three targets even with Shu's little refinement," Master Fong said to his friend, who had been about that to interrupt the proceedings and point out that the third challenge was usually to hit a target thrown along the ground almost out of sight of the challenger. He stopped and said after watching the reaction of the woman warrior: "No, I won't take that bet. I can see on her face that she considers herself up to the challenge. Now we will see if she is as good as she thinks she is." They watched intently as the woman, whom they realized was rather young for all her skill, placed an arrow dead in the center of both the wooden target and the first dove. Shu approached her with the blindfold.
Gabrielle let the bigoted monk slip on the black and thick cloth blindfold and had to stop herself from dodging as he tested if it obscured her vision by punching towards her. Her instincts screamed to her to roll to the ground and jam her Sais into her attacker. Gabrielle instead listened intently letting her soul tell her what lay behind the sounds as he walked away. Slowly she filtered all the noise of the courtyard, the students and finally the entire temple out of her awareness. She focused on the sound of the monk and the dove he was picking out of the same cage as the other one. She heard how he tried to fool her senses by stalking and jumping from place to place in the courtyard, while she drew and cocked an arrow onto her bow. Inside the blindfold she closed her eyes and focused entirely on the dove. She heard him let go. The sound of the monk's voice counting to three and the wing beats of the free dove mixed. She heard the rush of air through the weave of the bird's grey wings as it soared towards the sky. She let her soul guide her hands as it flew across the courtyard, the people around her marveling as her aim followed the course of the dove in the sky.
"Three," the monk's voice said. An arrow was loosened and flew into sky, but it flew off to the left of the course of the bird through the sky. Suddenly the wind drew the bird to the left and the arrow pierced it. Gabrielle heard the thud of the dead bird's body and the shattering of her arrow as it hit the ground, before she drew off the blindfold and looked into the gaping faces of all the students and monks in the courtyard.
"Fine, you are an archer," the monk grudgingly conceded after he as one of the first shook off his awe. He looked around steaming with anger at everyone's seaming acceptance of the woman's presence and acted on that anger. "Now you must face your final test. You must defeat me in combat. You may fight with whatever weapon you like. I'll be using this," he said and used his foot to flip his massive iron staff up into his hands.
"I will be using my Sais," Gabrielle said and thanked the gods around here for the chance to give this monk a beating he deserved. The ring was cleared again, while she went to gather her weapons.
"Shouldn't we stop him now, before anyone gets seriously hurt? I have this feeling that Shu is letting his anger guide him instead of any kind of wisdom taught to him here. I fear that either this woman is good enough to defeat him or we'll have to bury her tonight. Shu is a master with that ghastly iron staff of his and I fear that the woman could be just as bad with her Sais as well. This has disaster written all over it," Master Li cautioned his friend.
"No, my dear friend, I fear that we must allow this to run to the end, unless we want to injure the pride of both the contestants and I must again ask you to not underestimate this woman. I realized after her shot a masterful feat, which I admit, I've never seen before, that she truly is what she claims to be: a veteran warrior seeking to reconcile her abilities and her life. We will step in if this begins to threaten the life of either of the fighters, but otherwise I think we should let it run its course. I doubt that a veteran warrior will underestimate an opponent she has never faced before," Master Fong decided and stared again as the two fighters began to circle.
They had fought nearly half a minute. Gabrielle had realized going into this battle that her opponent would have the superior reach and so had adjusted her fighting style accordingly opting for a fast hit-hard-and-run tactic that would wear down her opponent hopefully opening him up for some kind of fast finishing move. The monk however had planned a very defensive style whirling his staff around a lot and made her original plan too dangerous. It had already earned her a couple of deep bruises.
Gabrielle shifted over to a feinting technique, which looked like her original plan, but which if successful would open up wide gaps for her to exploit in his defenses. She was barely thinking about her actions as she naturally changed patterns.
Gabrielle feinted towards a side block with her right arm and sai making it look like she was about to follow up with a stab or punch with her left hand, but her feet were moving towards a different goal than a straight forward one-two attack.
Just as Shu stepped forward meeting her right sai with his staff and planning on making a similar attack combination supposed to catch her unaware, Gabrielle whirled down and to the right in a full circle and made a very low circle kick sending the monk to the ground, while she returned to a ready fighting stance.
Shu had however landed badly and as he delayed slightly in getting up, Gabrielle jumped into the air, stretched out her body and put down her elbow. She and her full weight behind the elbow landed with a loud crack on the solar plexus of the monk. He took a wheezing gasp, cried out in pain and let go of his iron staff. Its metal clatter was joined by the pained gasping for mercy by the downed monk. The entire courtyard was resoundingly silent for a few moments.
"Would someone snap out of it and fetch a healer! He is seriously hurt," Gabrielle commanded in a tone she had gotten used to using on panicked soldiers and desperate amazons over the years. She had learned it from Xena and with her skills to back it up; she now used it for situations like this. Several startled students ran into the inner temple, while the two masters left the dais and walked towards her. Gabrielle sheathed her sai and waited them almost defiantly.
"You are truly a marvelous warrior. What is your name?" He asked.
"I'm Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Just call me Gabrielle," she presented herself without adding one or more the pretentious sounding titles she had been given over the years.
"Well met Gabrielle. I welcome you to our temple. You seek learning and wisdom. Let's see if we can help you find some," the white bearded man said and his eyes twinkled roguishly for a moment before he motioned for her to walk with him."
The cool mountain air fought with the warmer air escaping from the insides of the temple heated with big coal burners. It felt like a warm wind was gently caressing the skin of her face as she stared out on the verdant mountain valleys that stretched as far as her eyes could see. She walked back to the cushioned couch that she often used for her meditations. She was dressed in a jade green silk pants suit that she had bought in one of the southern port cities on her way through the land. It looked almost exactly like the one she had worn when they or at least the weird godlike force channeled by Xena had been fighting Lao Ma's evil daughter and son.
Slowly she closed her eyelids hiding her emerald orbs behind their folds. She focused on her breathing and did little more than that. Many people before the masters of the temple had worked to teach her the patient art of meditation and quiet contemplation. Only Eli had ever come close and it was from his lessons she now drew the skill that the masters prized so in her. Her mind began to wander her thoughts focused on the past.
The last four months had passed in a strange blur of intense martial arts training mixed with hours upon hours spent either in mediation or in discussion with the wise masters of the temple. For the first time since she began her quest to find something to stop the ever growing warrior nature of her soul, something to explain why she should live on as a person with a purpose besides being Xena's friend.
The masters of this place had taught her many things already. She remembered the first long discussion she had led with Master Li.
"Why are you here?" He had started the lesion that day by asking a simple question, but she had struggled to find an answer knowing that a short explanation was probably not what he wanted.
"I am seeking something…… You see I didn't grow up believing that I would ever become what I am now. I never thought, when I was young, I would find myself against as a dangerous warrior, who can and has killed in a haze of anger led on by hate and the need for vengeance. They're the very things I thought, I of all people could put behind me. I have struggled to find an answer to that and so many other questions," she had explained.
The old man had just looked at her funnily and told her: "You'll find no answers when you're struggling with yourself. You will find later on that you already had the seed for the truth in your heart and soul. We can't tell you the answers. There is no magic wand here to wave and make everything better. We will help you find your answers, but we cannot do it for you little one." He had smiled and then just left.
Another time had been spent with Master Fong a man she found pleasant and easy to talk to. They had built quite a friendship over the first month and she soon found that he was the one giving her all her lessons. It seemed that he had become her private soul healer. She had shared many stories of her life with Xena with him until one day he had asked: "And where were you? Were you but a shadow? Were you just a clay figure that Xena modeled in her image to leave in her place after she died?"
"No, Xena loved me for who I was, whoever that was. I changed during our life together and while, I think, Xena in the end found it convenient that she no longer had to fight my battles as well as her own. I also think she would have been just as happy, if I had never become the battling bard. I've reconciled myself with being a warrior fully now. I have put any guilt about that to rest by now," she had explained.
"Then when you can honestly say that she is not to blame and you feel no guilt over becoming a warrior on top of being a bard by your own choice. Why are you then punishing yourself with exile from the amazons even now?" He looked genuinely puzzled.
"Because I broke a promise I made to myself, to Eli and to Xena. I would not become a monster, I would not perpetuate the cycle of hatred in the world. I had sworn to myself that I would never give in to that," she said and remembered the tears in her eyes. Tears created by memories of clawing her way out of the pile of bodies and parts that she herself had made. She remembered coming out covered in blood like she had looked in her struggle to recover her memories both good and bad. She had let out her sorrow and anger in one great swell, but it hadn't receded. If she hadn't been greeted by the amazons on her return and carefully nursed back to sanity she would have still been prowling for those cannibals and anyone else she could avenge the feeling of loneliness and anger at her destiny in life on.
"Gabrielle, you are fighting a battle only a Bodhisattva could win. And while you have a purity of purpose in you, neither one of us is perfect. Only one close to perfection can achieve perfection. We, you and me, are human and while we must strive in each life for perfection in our path through that incarnation, we should not try to achieve it by walking a path we're not meant to be on. I guess your problem is that you were wrongly taught by your best friends… You told me that you set out in the beginning to live adventure, be a fighter and help the innocents of the world. But your friend taught you to fight with words instead. She supported your notion of your own innocence and tried to maintain it with you. Your friend Eli taught you out of pride at the greatness of his own teachings, but he realized fully later on that his way was not yours and he was right to think himself wrong." He had paused as if he was looking for the words or maybe just to soften the blow.
"Both your friends Xena and Eli were wrong and taught you these things because of their own needs instead of yours. Xena needed a presence of innocence in her life and you became it. And finally as you told yourself all the idealistic visions, you both had about you were pealed away revealing a much more sympathetic and human being underneath. Eli realized his mistake and so in a way I think did your friend. In the end you became, what you said, you wanted to be. Never underestimate the source of childhood dreams and wishes dear Gabrielle the truth in the soul of a child is often closer to any truth we will know in later life. But we are more than the sum of our wishes Gabrielle. You still carry their lessons and hopes in you and that together with your own failing to understand your path in life is, what is causing you to be troubled," he had told and then winced as if he had expected her to explode in anger.
Instead she had asked him to leave. For days she had contemplated this and the other things she had been taught in the temple. They didn't claim to know the complete truth of all things only that they sought to better themselves throughout life preparing for their next life, where they hoped not to be called on to be a warrior again. Gabrielle had found truth in Master Fong's words and she had spent a great deal of time after that examining the reasons for her guilt and doubts in life. She remembered the purity of intent that had filled her back, when she had met Xena and she realized that although she was sure neither of her friends had intended it to damage her, what the master had told her about them, was true. And she had wanted them to teach her.
Gabrielle opened her eyes for a moment and looked around then rose and walked to the window sill and leaned on it. She wondered a little about how her life story would have been, if Xena hadn't protected her innocence for so long. If she had become a warrior earlier, maybe Hope would never have been born of her, maybe Solan wouldn't have died and maybe the entire world would no longer have been here. In the end she decided to draw on Eli and his God's single greatest teaching to her. She forgave Xena, Eli and herself for what had been and decided that in the end the results were just fine anyway. She didn't know if it helped but at least she understood herself better now. That only left a loneliness easily remedied by opening up her heart to other people again.
She hadn't realized until now. She had begun shutting it after their time in the cooler and the death of Joxer, her parents and finally when Xena had fallen as well, she had felt her heart close and almost grow cold. People like Plini and Deirdre had still wormed their way in, but all in all she had been isolating herself and not even been realizing it. She vowed to change that and began by opening her heart and soul to all the gentle and good people in the temple and valley. Still there was that one gnawing realization that she had been wrong about something major in her life. She remembered about their conversation, when Fong had pointed it out to.
"Tell me that again. So you're telling me that you answered that question with by saying that you knew that your path in life was to walk beside your friend. That was supposed to be your way: The Way of Friendship." She clearly recalled how he had laughed at her mockingly.
"So here you tell me earlier that you said, it was good to be out of the shadow of your friend and that you felt like you were no longer a sidekick. I am sorry to tell you this Gabrielle, but I wouldn't be your friend if I didn't. Xena was your friend yes, but you were and maybe still are standing so firmly in her shadow. Gabrielle, you were still her sidekick and the very way you have lived your life proves it to me. Now don't look like that, I am sure Xena was a great friend and really good to you and you needed her protection, but honestly you were at that point still her sidekick and you weren't following your own path in life, you were walking in the shadowed roadside bushes of her path," he had said and smiled at her benevolently.
"Listen to me," she still remembered the anger that had welled up from inside at his words struck home. "Xena is dead I do not live in her shadow, although I live with my myriads of memories of her. I have always been on my own path and I will have you know the one time I stopped fighting and almost left the path of friendship I became unable to free myself from oppression and we both got killed. Don't tell me I don't know my path in life, it is with Xena…" And there all her anger had left her as her mind and soul had caught up with the anger in her heart. She remembered thinking that if Xena had left her and she hadn't been able to find and be a friend to someone else like Xena, maybe she had been wrong all along. Maybe the Way she should be following had been wrong, but how wrong it had been and if it had been wrong what way was she to follow instead. She remembered asking in a meek voice: "If my way was false, why didn't all my time with Xena feel wrong? What is my true path then?"
And he had just said: "Maybe your path wasn't wrong. You are soul mates and meant to be together path or way be damned. Maybe you just don't know what the path you've been following really is? I don't know the answer to this riddle, but your soul does and one day it will reveal it to you just like it did to your friend. Just don't expect it to be a simple answer. Simple answers are rarely the entire truth. Now how about we go to see if we can scare up some dinner for that monster you call a belly."
And so they had ended their discussion a few days ago. Now she found herself alone in the room they had graciously let her use for her stay, wondering and thinking like she did a lot, when she wasn't going through the most bone hard and intense training in martial arts that she had ever experienced.
Funnily enough it was only something like the fourth time that she actually got any formal training in actual combat. She had been taught staff fighting by Solari and Ephiny. She had forced Xena to give her a few pointers of sword fighting, when she had been filled with the lust for vengeance over Perdicus. And finally she been taught a lot more about swords especially katana by Xena and Kenji during their long trip to Japan. She had learned everything else just by watching, mimicry and practice under pressure. Now it felt like the masters here were finding and removing a lot of rough edges on her fighting style. It was strange but she actually found that she liked doing both combat training and deep contemplation. And while they urged her to do both they were entirely willing to let her choose both the speed and depth of her learning. This was a place on Gaia that just felt entirely unforced and peaceful yet energetic almost like during the good days of the resettlement of the amazons or the earlier days of her wanderings with Xena before Hope and the rift in their friendship.
Her thoughts focused on her relationship with Xena before and after Hope. Sure there had been great times after that, however back then it had all still been untarnished by darker emotions. Then again it had also been an idealistic illusion of a much more varied world. She now felt that to see the full view of the world your life experience should include both darkness and light, because one could not exist without the other. She felt like she could stay here for years, but she knew that it wouldn't be like that. She was already getting a little stir-crazy and soon it would become full-blown wanderlust again. It seemed that one instinct that had originally gotten her out the door of the farm in Poteidaia still held true. She just didn't feel like settling down.
And suddenly as if destiny had heard her thoughts noise erupted all throughout the temple. Gabrielle nearly laughed as she rose, but opened for a private wry grin. She heard the patter of bare feet, probably students by the sound of it, passing her room. Calm on the surface she walked over to the large wooden closet on the left and pulled out her sai.
Gabrielle ran down the stone corridor past the burning pots and statues towards the main courtyard, where she had passed her challenges. She knew the temple like the back of her hand now and cut as many shortcuts as she was able to. Gabrielle jumped down the middle of the three story stairwell and ran in high speed out into the bustling courtyard, where confused students, monks and even a few of the masters were milling around in between a growing collection of bedraggled strangers and battle worn soldiers carried wounded, supplies or other possessions. Her eyes sought and found Master Fong standing off to the side talking to a soldier, whose additional colors and helmet seemed to indicate either a higher rank or that he was better at keeping his helmet on while fleeing. Gabrielle walked over to stand off to the side and listen in.
"So are his armies heading this way?" Master Fong didn't seem to be afraid of the answer from the tone of his voice as if he relished the thought.
"No great master. He has split his armies and sent them in every direction. And his armies are vast great master. The Emperor's grand army will be hard pressed against these barbarians. They ride through the lands of Chin like a plague. They burn, plunder, rape and pillage everywhere they go and when they have left again, his people move in and take over control, ruling like they were noble lords appointed by the Emperor himself. I have seen them with my own eyes. He won't stop until he rules all of Chin. Oh, Celestial masters have mercy on us!" The soldier explained quickly with both anger and fear apparent in both his face and voice.
"Calm yourself young man. Now how did this northerner get past the Great Wall?" Fong calmly asked.
"I don't know. It is said that he has a witch with him, who showed him a way to cheat or kill the guards along before they could start the warning fires. Suddenly one day guards found out that he had control over a large and expanding section of the wall. He is ferrying his people across in droves all the times. They are a huge ravenous horde. Devils cast out from the thousand hells. They are demons… They… I can't…" The soldier broke down into inane babbling.
After several tries to get more information out of the soldier, who was probably scared silly Master Fong gave up and walked up to Gabrielle. "How much did you hear?" He asked and motioned for her to follow him as he strode slowly towards the gatehouse.
"Some, but I can figure out the rest. A war has started and these are refugees from the war torn region, who have come seeking protection from you," she offered looked around with watery eyes as she watched wounded and desolate people entering the gate one by one. Each stopped and bowed or cried before the helpful monks thanking them or just crying out their pain. But what really horrified Gabrielle was the fact that the wounded weren't just soldiers. No, the wounded were farmers, their wives and their children. And if this were just the ones alive or who had made it here, how much worse wouldn't it be out there before the marauding army of the invaders. Emotions buried for mere months rushed forth again and she felt her mind getting ready take on these bastards the Xena way. She was ready, but then she felt her lingering doubts reenter him mind and as she stood there before the slow trickle of people coming through the gate, she became unable to make a decision.
"The barbarians who did this are from the northern tribes. They are the enemies that we created to the Great Wall to guard against and in more than one way to stop us from clashing. The enmity between our people is ancient, but its cause is mere envy and greed these days. However this warlord, the leader of that huge army out there, is already proving himself to be more monster than any warlord, we have ever seen ride in from the North," Fong looked out through the gate towards the far away hills. "His army is very large, numbering well beyond the hundred thousand that the Emperor currently has ready to march. He seems bent on genocide and conquest at any cost. He must be stopped. But we only have one general, who is up to the task and I fear that having only one general is not good enough." He seemed to be wrestling with indecision for a moment.
"What will you do?" Gabrielle found herself asking.
"Nothing," he answered and looked at her.
"Nothing, but what then… Oh, no I can't…" She gasped as she understood what or more exactly who he was thinking of.
"We need a hero Gabrielle not a General. And like it or not you are a hero probably the best one, we could have ever hoped for. But if you think you aren't ready, then we must hope for someone else and that is all there is to it," Fong nodded sagely to himself and kept his gaze locked on the faraway hills.
Gabrielle walked away suddenly cold in the wind even if it couldn't penetrate her warm silk clothing.
Almost a week had passed since the first refugees had arrived, but it seemed so much longer to Gabrielle. She had organized the students and monks that were made available to her by the masters into a veritable army of nurses and as they often did healers had begun appearing to help her in her work as the chief surgeon. But it wasn't the entire reason for the weariness she felt. She had begun having intense nightmares about all the dark times of her life. The crucifixion, the death of Perdicus, Joxer and Xena, the eyes of Hope staring into hers as she died in the arms of her son, Deirdre's face getting torn off before her eyes, all these images plagued her dreams every time she got too tired to remain awake. She always woke up bathed in her sweat screaming. And through all this Fong never spoke a word about her rejecting his plea at the gatehouse, he only comforted her, when one of her patients died and she needed to cry out the pain of the death another innocent. The wounded just kept on coming, a few arriving every day as the horror stories grew louder and their worst fears of atrocities confirmed by the wounds they saw every day.
Gabrielle bent down at the side of the bed of a little girl, who had been stood in a fire by the warlord's soldiers, when her father had refused to give up their family savings. He had done it immediately thereafter, but they had just beheaded him as a 'lesson' to his family and left them with the burnt girl in dire need of help. Her mother sat with tear filled eyes besides her daughter, who was struggling with an infection in her wounds caught on the long journey from the battlefield.
Gabrielle lifted the bandages after washing her hands and looked on the swollen feet. The wounds weren't looking well and she would soon have to cut of the little girls legs if the inflammation didn't die down. She had treated her with every herb for this that she knew of, but it had done little good. She replaced the bandages and her eyes met the hopeful eyes of the mother. Gabrielle felt too tired to try to keep the truth from slipping into her expression and she only realized it, when the woman's eyes became teary and she buried her head in a fierce hug of her daughter. Gabrielle nearly felt her heart break for this woman and for a long moment she wished that she had a child of her own and that it lived somewhere safe and well, but the only thing that had emerged from her womb had been evil to its core and put there by deception and rape. "She will not die. There is still a chance that the swelling will go down, but if we wait much longer to take of her legs, there is a chance that she will die. I can wait no more than a day before you'll have to decide," Gabrielle felt her throat growing hoarse and she felt a large knot forming in her stomach. For a while she just sat there caressing the crying woman on her back.
Hours passed. "Gabrielle! Help me!" The mother screamed out over the hospital. Gabrielle, who had been carefully sowing up a knife wound for a squirming farmer, jumped to her feet and ran as fast as she could through the candlelit hospital jumping over sleeping patients and objects in the way.
The little girl was having some kind of seizure. Gabrielle grabbed her and quickly listened to her heart. It was fluttering, when just as she reached down to grip the arm of the girl, it stopped. Gabrielle tried to revive her using all the techniques that Xena had shown her over the years but nothing worked. Gabrielle hammered her hand down hard on her little chest again and again but nothing. Finally she stopped and looked up at the completely silent mother, who sat there just staring at Gabrielle. "She is dead," Gabrielle managed to mumble. The mother got to her feet slightly swaying as if she was sleepwalking and headed towards the exit. Gabrielle watched her go for a few moments then as if on instinct she rose as well and followed her.
The mother was walking towards the gatehouse through the tent filled courtyard. Gabrielle wrinkled her brow for a moment in bewilderment then ran down to talk to the woman, who she was sure should be walking around right now.
"Where are you going?" Gabrielle asked with incredulity in her voice.
The woman stopped and stared at Gabrielle like she was a ghost or some apparition. "I am going to murder the soldiers that killed my family. Then I'm going to work my way up through their commanders, until I get to the greatest monster of them all," she explained as if she was going out to buy vegetables at the market or something like that.
"No you can't. You shouldn't. Listen to me. You're not capable of that. You're not skilled enough. It will only get you killed and what service are you doing your husband and daughter by dying for a lost cause. Is that how you want to honor their spirits?" Gabrielle hoped that she had understood enough of their spiritual beliefs around here to at least affect this woman, before she went out and got herself killed.
The woman took a shuddering breath then asked: "But if not me then who? Nobody seems able to stop them. If Chin is not conquered then this war will last for years. Who will help us? Nobody thinks of the small farmers, the common people and the innocents during a war. How many more like my daughter have died or will die at the hands of the Green Dragon before this is over?"
Gabrielle took at shocked step backwards. "Green Dragon, is that the name of the warlord?"
"Yes, he has named himself like the ancient Emperor of old claiming that it is his right by might to become the next Dragon to rule Chin. He is just a false Dragon, but he does fight and plan with the skill of one. Maybe he is one full of anger and poison coming to punish us for the sins of our ancestors and with no dragons on our side, how can we win?" The woman spoke faster and faster, but some segment of Gabrielle's mind reminded herself that at least it meant, she wasn't heading out to get herself killed. Only she still seemed unconvinced, but then Gabrielle had an inspiration. And from this inspiration came realization. She wanted to help these people in their suffering. Not just by being a healer, because as she had claimed so many times herself she wasn't just that or a bard or an amazon queen. She was a warrior and she fought for the innocent. That was the source of her nightmares, she was going against her nature and her soul had punished her for it. It was time for her to do something more than talk and think about the past. It was time for the full awakening of Xena's legacy beyond anything seen by the Romans or the Amazons. It was the time for another Warrior Princess. Gabrielle the Battling Bard would ride into battle for the weak, the innocent and fight the armies that were descending on these lands. It was time to act.
"There are Dragons on your side as well. One of them has only been sleeping, gaining strength, but its sleep is over and a little Dragon now will join you in your struggle," Gabrielle claimed.
"Really," the woman sounded hopeful and her stance changed slightly.
"Yes," Gabrielle enthused and drew open her silk shirt while turning. She hadn't seen the students, refugees or even Master Fong that had been attracted by the heated exchange. And they all beheld the unnaturally clear and defined image of the dragon living in the skin of her back. Later all would swear they had heard a low growl and seen the dragon move before Gabrielle had covered it again.
"I am sorry I doubted you," the woman fell to her knees crying out her pain and relief.
"No don't do that. I have only been touched by the dragon I am no god or any thing like that. I am here to help however. And I think the first thing we must do is arrange for the proper burial of your daughter," Gabrielle explained and helped the woman back on her feet almost not noticing the whispers and murmurs spreading around the edges of the people filled courtyard. She took the grieving woman back to the hospital ignoring the stares of all the people following the pair as they went.
As they walked inside they passed Master Fong, who just commented: "Finally the little dragon has woken up." Gabrielle stared after him but said nothing. She knew why she had done it and what it meant for her. Now it was time to accept her nature and move on. She only hoped she was strong enough not to hate and deal out vengeance and then maybe along the way her Way would reveal itself. But she forced herself to stop focusing on her errors or even her past with Xena. Now it was her time. She focused on who she was and for the first time truly believed in herself and her abilities. All doubts she had felt were categorized, remembered and then shattered on the altar of her sudden and newfound self-assurance. She felt free all of a sudden.
A clear day of sunshine greeted her as she awoke from her full night of sleep. Gabrielle had left the leadership of the hospital to one of the healers already last night and taken her leave with her friends in the temple. She only had to pack her possessions, get Ghost of the pasture, saddled and then she would go off to find a way to end this war as fast as possible.
Gabrielle slipped her last set of samurai clothing into her pack and looked at herself once again. She was once more dressed in the clothing of the samurai of Japan, but instead of just her sai she also wore the katana in its customary place for the first time since she had used it in a duel months ago. She sighed once and grabbed the bags containing her possessions and left the room, where she had spent months of peace and quiet. For a moment she turned and looked on the room with undisguised nostalgia before walking down the corridor.
Gabrielle walked out into the bustling courtyard filled with refugees, tents, cooking fires and helpful students milling about lending a helping hand where they could. Gabrielle stopped a moment to take it all in then headed towards the gatehouse.
To her surprise a saddled and brushed Ghost stood loaded with supplies awaiting her arrival. "What is up with you and all the food?" Gabrielle asked her faithful horse and cocked a pencil thin eyebrow. Ghost just whinnied and indicated something off to the right with her head.
"It is not that we want you to leave my dear, but we thought it best to speed you on your journey. It is after a trip of great importance to all of us," Master Li stood of to the right and smiled at her saintly. Gabrielle bit back the question of Master Fong's whereabouts not wanting to make the nice man think she rather wanted her best friend in the temple to be there for her departure even if it was the truth. She walked over and hugged the blushing monks one by one then with a great but still sad smile she waved goodbye to the hastily assembled group of supposedly working students standing in the gatehouse door and vaulted into the saddle of Ghost and rode away on her white horse.
"Do you think she will be back?" One of the still blushing monks asked Master Li.
"No, I fear she won't. The destiny of that one doesn't lie here. She is a doer of great things, a hero. She isn't destined to live a quiet life and I fear none of her lives will be," he said and sighed.
"What do you mean?" The monk asked at the cryptic answer.
"There are dragons in this world my friends and there are tigers as well. Our dear friend out there is to me a great and powerful tiger, but one that was reared by the greatest of dragons. Her rage is a terror to behold. But as great as her anger can be her caring love is all conquering capable of shining through to even the darkest of places. I feel that this is neither her first or last incarnation full of dealing with great things," Master Li smiled mysteriously at his fellow monk and walked back to his room. He would of course miss his friend Master Fong, but then again it took slightly more than an army or two to kill that old rogue.
Gabrielle continued down the dirt path through the small village at the foot of the mountain and onto the slightly wider road, when she came upon a man dressed in a white and black robe wearing a large and wide hat. The walk and body type was very familiar to her. With a smirk and a slightly worried expression Gabrielle rode up on the side of the heartily walking traveler. "Where do you think you're going?" She asked Master Fong.
"I am going to the capitol Chang'an to present myself as a volunteer to the Emperor's armies. Don't you think I'll make a good figure as a recruit?" He asked and smiled teasingly at the young woman.
"Fong unlike Xena I don't do sidekicks well. Maybe it comes from having been one… I don't know," Gabrielle commented. "The temple needs your leadership more than I need your fighting prowess or must I prove as I did in the training room last week that I've learned all the techniques that you teach," she offered.
"First of all I am not going as a sidekick, but as your friend, guide to Chin and spiritual counsel for any dark times." Suddenly he jumped high into the air leading on a branch and then jumped back to the ground some yards in front of Ghost. The trained warhorse remained unimpressed. "Second of all don't confuse what I teach my student with what are the limits of what I can do. I always keep some secrets to myself in case of an ambitious student not wanting to listen to me and needing physical education," he explained and looked at her resolutely. "Finally Gabrielle I am not only going for you. The Emperor seems to have failed to notice that this is not only about fighting one battle on one battlefield but a matter that needs a masterful touch to resolve and for the nation to recover from. I used to be amongst his father's counselors and his teacher. I think he needs me again."
"Alright then on to the capitol it is," Gabrielle said, "if you can keep up." She tapped Ghost twice and set off at a high speed.
She rode almost out of sight and came to a crossroads. She rode to the right. "Gabrielle," Fong's voice called out from behind, "Chang'an is to the left." Gabrielle smiled, shook her head in mock disappointment of herself and turned Ghost around. This was getting of to a good start."
Chang'an impressed her with its size even as she was only passing through one of its many gates. She had dismounted to walk besides Fong on their way through the gates. Gabrielle looked around at the bustling streets and what she saw differed greatly from what she had seen in the trade bustling cities further down south. She had never seen a city this bustling with activity even after the sun had set, but everywhere people were still at work or going from place to place with goods under the colored lights of thousands of lanterns. "Is it always so busy?" She asked almost in awe as they crested a hill within the city and she looked out over the huge city lighted by thousands and thousands of lanterns, torches and coal burners. It looked like a field of colored stars was laid out on the ground.
"It wasn't much different, when I was here last. In a candlemark or so it will grow quiet. I expect that the palace grounds will remain busy for quite some time after that though. But we should hurry along Gabrielle, if we're to reach our destination, before they close the gates against the night," Fong smiled wearily to her and continued walking. Gabrielle sighed, she knew that Fong was a still strong for his age and quite capable in a combat situation, but she also saw every day that the traveling had took a lot out of him. And she saw in his eyes that it took more than he had expected.
As they walked through the winding roads towards the palace faintly visible against the dark sky by a halo of light created by its many large lanterns Gabrielle saw the first foreigners with white skin that she had seen ever since she had left her amazons to find her way. They were obviously Roman traders looking for silk, still some instinct or fear of recognition stemming from her many years of traveling and not trusting strangers made her reach onto the back of Ghost, grab a brightly colored shawl from India from one of her pack and wrap it around her head.
Fong looked at her strangely and asked: "Do you know them?"
Gabrielle smiled slightly but shook her head. She tried to explain: "No, I don't and they probably don't know me. But I am not sure if the Amazons have heeded my plea to be left alone and there are certain other people around back West that I don't want to know where I am. There are the Romans, who must continue believe me and the Amazons long gone or perished. There are a certain number of Gods, who like me too much and want to involve me in their lives. And there could all sorts of strange age old leftovers from my life with Xena that could popup, if people find out where I am."
"I thought you had decided to start including people in your heart again," Fong offered as a thought and cocked a long bushy white eyebrow.
"Yes and I am… Maybe this is about something else… Alright, it isn't just about hiding. This could turn to one of my greatest adventures and maybe I just want to do something like this without people constantly comparing it to my previous life with Xena. Do you think I could do that? Or is it the wrong way to go about living?" She asked, while trying to keep her expression neutral.
"Ah. Now I think I understand a little better. Well maybe you really should try to jump outside your own shadow for a while. I think it will allow you to understand yourself better. But Gabrielle your name and deeds as the Battling Bard have traveled up the trade routes with the Persian and Roman traders for several decades and your treks back and forth both with and without Xena have not passed unnoticed here either. You would have to act without your name or telling stories from the past, while you did this. That is an almost inhumanly hard thing to keep your own history a secret and still accomplish what we're here to do. There would also be no glory in it for Gabrielle the Battling Bard. You wouldn't be remembered for it," he reminded her.
"I've done very little of my heroics for recognition. There was a time, when I thought that I didn't get enough credit for my work, but that has long passed. Now I would like to try and do it on my own. Without standing in the shadow of my own legend or… Xena's," she explained the last words turning into only a faint whisper, but Fong didn't comment he only smiled sagely and continued walking.
The guards weren't about to close the gates, when they came upon one of the entrances to the palace. They were too stressed out for that. In front of Gabrielle still a hundred yards from the gate a line of men ended. The looks on their faces were varied between angry, tired, excited and just plain bored. "What are they waiting for?" Gabrielle asked Fong in confusion.
"They are conscripts. All families are expected to pitch in to defeat the invading armies. Unfortunately most of these men have absolutely no skill or experience. They are farmers mostly. Their destiny is most probably a messy death at the front of some mad charge in which no sane soldier would participate. So is the tradition of warfare in our Empire. Unfortunately this also means that many fields will go untended as their families are unable to cope with the loss of one or more of their men. Fortunately most families have a young son willing to go to war for the Empire so that the rest of the family can continue their traditions," he explained and seemed saddened by the sight.
She wished with all her heart and soul that each of these men and all those others she hadn't seen survived this war, but her mind understood that it would not end like that. If she got command of any of them she would do her best to keep them alive. But if their lives were the thing between victory and defeat, she also knew deep within that she was capable of sacrificing them for the greater good. Her mind knew very well that with the staggering size of this war one of her tricks or mere tactics wouldn't end this war in one decisive battle. This was to be a real war, a protracted series of battles on several battlefields like the ones Xena had been in before they had met. There would be thousands of dead, families torn asunder and people marked for at least a generation by this war, but it was better than the alternative of complete genocide offered to these people by their enemy, and so this war would have to be fought. "We need to get into the Palace before they close the gates and not as conscripts. You said you had some experience with the Imperial court," Gabrielle said after staring at the line of conscripts for awhile.
"Yes, I do know certain ways. And I think I want us to sleep warm and safe tonight instead of roaming the streets of Chang'an. Just walk behind me and let me do the talking. I will get us inside and in time I will make sure that you can fulfill your wish to help us. Have some patience with our unenlightened ways with women for a while alright… Good now stay behind me," he said and walked around the line, making his way towards the gate ignoring any murmured comments from the conscripts as he passed.
Fong headed toward the inner courtyard ignoring the guards like they were air to him, but they didn't let him pass. One of the four guards dressed in his armor and armed with a spear held out a hand and asked him to stop. Gabrielle and Ghost stopped not far behind, but remained standing quietly in the shadow of the elderly master.
"Where did you think you were going old man?" The guard asked in an annoyed tone of voice.
Master Fong looked at the guard like he was a bug and then produced a small scroll from his robe. He handed it to the guard in an officious way and said: "Listen young man. I had the ear of the Emperor's father. I taught the Emperor how to survive. Now I come here today to offer my help as a Master warrior in the war against the Northern barbarians and you have the audacity to slow me down. Now step aside before I have to teach you the basic rules of polite behavior towards your betters."
The guard seemingly overwhelmed by Master Fong's speech gulped in surprise and hastily motioned for him to walk inside with the still rolled up scroll in his hand.
"My pass," Master Fong said and held out his hand towards the still unopened scroll. The guard nodded and dropped it into Master Fong's open palm. He motioned for Gabrielle to follow.
"Hey who is this?" The guard asked and motioned with his spear towards Gabrielle almost stabbing her with the motion. She easily avoided the prod but she couldn't really maneuver in the tight space of the gate area with Ghost at her back and people all around.
Master Fong turned around and his face seemed like it twisted in rage. He grabbed the guard's neck and pressed a thumb down on a certain spot there, which caused him to drop his weapon and whimper with pain. "Don't you dare interfere more you officious ass. That is a warrior, who has come from very far away to fight at the side of the Emperor. The Emperor is expecting us even as you make us tarry here. Should I remember to point that out to him?"
"No, I am sorry honored master. I meant no offense I swear," the guard whined and motioned for Gabrielle to pass with her mount.
They walked across the busy courtyard, where bureaucrats, conscripts, soldiers and lieutenants milled around in barely contained chaos. "Can I see that pass," Gabrielle asked and cocked a questioning eyebrow.
"I am sure you're not interested in an inventory list from the temple, my dear," Fong explained and his eyes twinkled roguishly.
"I knew you couldn't have gotten an invitation from the Emperor. What would you have done if the guard hadn't fallen for your ruse?" She asked with a quirky smile playing across her lips.
"Well the trick is to mix equal part lies with truth. All he would have been able to read, if he was even able to read at all was probably the sign for my name. The rest is in a rather obscure northern dialect no much used anymore. I didn't lie about my former role at the court only about being expected back. I hope the Emperor will be glad to see me, but we shall see soon enough. Now we have to overcome a much harder obstacle: the Bureaucrats," he said with a sigh and led Gabrielle towards one of the central buildings opposite the gate they had entered.
The courtyard was getting a bit chilly as the evening was about to turn into night. Gabrielle stood slightly aside, while Fong for the tenth time tried to get past the Bureaucrats and obtain permission to see the Emperor. She listened in as the abrasive bureaucrat just finished the conversation between him and Fong with a simple: "Out of the question. He has not only retired for the day, and your petition will have to be added to the pile. Quite frankly I very much doubt you'll be able to see the Emperor for a while. He is very busy you know." Fong walked over to Gabrielle muttering curses in Greek, a language he had learned over the months of teaching her.
"No luck," Gabrielle asked and tried to wipe any trace of a smirk from both her face and eyes.
"No. I fear that we must take a different approach, if we are to get anywhere near the Emperor for months. The Bureaucrats are ten-times worse than when I was here last. Everyone is exceedingly busy with the war effort, so a visit from an old teacher is very far down the list of priorities for the Emperor right now," he explained weariness written all over his face.
"So what is your plan, oh mighty and wise teacher," Gabrielle said trying to lightened the mood of the tired looking monk.
"Are you mocking me Little Dragon? Well, if you're fresh enough for that, maybe you have an idea how we go about this? I'm fresh out," he explained in stunted Greek.
Gabrielle fell silent for a moment thinking hard, while her eyes wandered up and down the faÁade of the well guarded palace. "If you meet this Emperor then you're sure he would listen to you. Even if the circumstances are a bit weird," she asked urgently, while a little smile danced on her lips.
"Yes," Fong answered suddenly wary of her merriment.
"Good then follow me. You're no spring chicken any more, so we should have you tucked into bed before midnight," she teased, while she motioned for Ghost to stay put. Muttering in mock anger Fong followed along.
Gabrielle knew that the continuing chaos in the courtyard was the perfect cover for any thief or in their case burglar. "Follow me," she explained. Tensing up intensely trained muscles and recalling all the lessons of Xena and the temple about movement she took a deep breath and focused on her goal instead the way there. She kept the intense focus of her mind and soul. In one move she almost soundlessly jumped up the faÁade of the palace to land in a colonnade that went around the entire building. Panting slightly a startled looking Fong landed behind her. Gabrielle exulted internally at having finally reached proficiency at jumping this far after years of wishing and training. But they didn't have time to linger in the lighted and patrolled corridor and she ran almost soundlessly using the hunting skills taught to her by Xena and the Amazons towards a small door obviously meant for the servants. She ducked into a small unlit passage and awaited Fong.
"What are you doing? Breaking into the Palace is not a good idea!" He asked almost furiously as he stopped besides her.
"I am getting us into the palace. It's kind of like breaking in only we're not stealing anything. Now where would you be hiding the Emperor, if you were the palace guards?" She asked her voice only barely hiding the fact that she was having fun.
"Are you sure that you didn't like to go around hitting bulls with sticks as a child?" Fong asked amazed at the warrior's indifference to the immense danger they were now in.
"Don't worry, Fong. Xena did this once, she easily managed to get into the imperial bedroom and the only thing that came in her way was a slightly case of betrayal. Now this is a different palace, but I am sure that if you give me some pointers we could get just as far without any trouble whatsoever," she explained glad that the monk didn't see her expression as her happiness for a moment warred with the sting of the memory of her betrayal of Xena to Ming Tien.
Fong seemed to mull it over. "This goes against my better judgment… Oh, well you got to die some time. If they haven't changed too much in the decades I've been gone then the imperial bedroom is in a building not too far from here on the second floor. But the way there will be patrolled and the bedroom will be heavily guarded," he explained his voice betraying some anxiety.
"Okay then. Do you know the trick to getting there?" She asked.
"You're asking me, how we're going to get there?" Fong sounded genuinely surprised.
"Nope, but I have to ask you some details about the courts around here," she explained. Fong awaited her questions, she surmised from his silence. "Would your Emperor or any of the other people sleeping near him ever indulge them with dancing girls or other types of entertainment like that?" She asked.
"Y-Yes," Fong answered with confusion clear in his voice.
"Good thing that I wore my amazon battle dress under my clothing then…," Gabrielle's voice in the pitch black corridor was interrupted with sounds of clothing getting removed and dropped on the floor, boots getting thrown on the floor and metal clanking against the stone floor.
"Good I am done. Could you hide these in your clothes? They're rather important to me. They're the only things I still own from my life with Xena," she explained as Fong suddenly found himself holding two sai in his hands.
"Would the entertainment be slaves of some kind?" She awaited his answer as his mind suddenly caught up with what Gabrielle had planned.
"Not necessarily… Don't you dislike men treating you like an object for sex?" He asked, while his recalcitrant mind filled with images of the beautiful women dressed in a lot less than he had ever seen her in before today.
"Not really they do that all the time anyway without any intervention from me whatsoever. Good about the slave thing though, I hate wearing a collar and they are kind of hard to improvise. You should have seen me and Xena back in the day. We used to travel around with a complete set of roman disguises Xena as a noble and me as a slave. That was her idea of course… Let's go," she said and pushed the door open and motioned for Fong to pass her.
As they came out into the lighted but still open air colonnade Fong shivered in sympathy as he saw the skimpy dress that Gabrielle now wore. It was a set made up of a beautiful red leather halter-top and matching very short skirt. Her feet were bare and very delicate, while her entire white skinned body was an enchanting mixture of muscles and softness. On her back the little dragon was coiled looking almost as if it was ready to spring from her back fully formed. And on her shapely leg he even saw another part of the structure that he hadn't seen before, a fish tattoo set there as if to soften the over-all blow of her tattoo's presence. Repressing his male instincts Fong walked up in front of Gabrielle with her sai safely hidden inside his robes.
Fong almost gulped with surprise as four guards walked towards them. "Act, like you belongs here and they won't pay us much notice. Remember I am here to distract them. If this turns bad just throw over my sai and we'll take it from there," Gabrielle whispered, while she continued to walk behind him with her head bowed in seeming respect for the man accompanying her.
The guards did appreciate Gabrielle greatly and stopped behind them to watch the spectacle of her walking, but they didn't bother to check their permission to be in this part of the castle at all.
They came to the guarded entrances to the imperial bedchambers. "Now comes the hard part. I know you have no trouble lying and this one better be convincing," Gabrielle whispered.
"Of course," Fong added and smiled benevolently as he stopped before the guard.
"I am bringing this foreign wench for his imperial highness's pleasure as ordered," Fong said and tried to sound as casual as if this was an everyday occurrence.
"I don't believe it. He has barely sent his wife and children away to safety, before he calls for concubines." One of the guards whispered to his comrades as far as Gabrielle's superior hearing could estimate.
The guards stepped aside and one even politely opened the gate-like door to let them enter the corridor on the other side. "Which way is it?" Gabrielle asked after the door had been closed again.
Fong looked around a little. "This way," he said, pointed to the door at the end of the corridor past a couple of other heavy doors and added: "I hope" in the quiet of his mind.
Fong slowly opened the door leading into a long corridor towards an opening into a large bedchamber. From afar they could both clearly hear the slight snore of the Emperor. "Let's go wake him up," Gabrielle suggested and stalked into the corridor.
To her the Emperor looked like a man only a few years her elder, who slept fitfully as if plagued already by some nightmare. With a slight smile on her lips and wary eyes looking for any indication of trouble she gestured for Fong to wake up the Emperor of Chin.
"Let me sleep… It is still too early…" The Emperor grumbled before he realized that it was entirely too early to woken and that it was neither his wife nor his manservant awakening him. He jumped up in his bed and screamed: "Guards!"
Gabrielle smacked her forehead and called out to Fong: "Quick! Throw me my sai. I'll hold them off while you explain everything." Fong quickly drew out the sai and tossed them to the waiting amazon queen. Gabrielle just managed to whirl them into a ready position as the three of the four guards from before burst into the corridor leading to the room. She guessed that the fourth one had gone for reinforcements as she ran towards them.
One of the guards tried to rush her, while his sword was held high poised for an overhead chop. Gabrielle neatly sidestepped the clumsy attack and made an elbow strike to his lower back as he passed by.
"My Emperor, please calm down," Master Fong asked.
Gabrielle parried a sword with one sai, while side kicking another guard first in the stomach and then in the head. The guard, she had elbowed, got up and charged her at high speed.
"It is I," Master explained, "Master Fong your old teacher."
Gabrielle heard her assailant approaching from behind. She freed her sai, flipped into the air and landed to watch her attacker make a neat tackle into the other guard, she had been blocking. They made a nice pile of angry guards on the floor.
"Master Fong?" The Emperor asked and seemed to be trying to collect his frazzled thoughts.
The one she had kicked looked about ready to get up and so she vaulted into the air once again and landed on his back with all her weight and speed. He hammered his head into the floor and passed out. The other were about to free themselves and she could hear others approaching, but they were still at least half a minute away from becoming a threat.
"Yes, my Emperor. We simply had to see you. I apologize for your rude awakening; of course," Fong explained in his most apologetic voice.
The two guards seemed about ready to extract themselves from each other, but Gabrielle was already in motion. She quickly ran over between the still groggy guards. They were barely back on their feet, when she grabbed each by their head and slammed their heads together. She turned away from the suddenly unconscious guards and quickly looked for both an easy escape route, which looked to be out the window that sounded like it opened out over some moat down below, and for some way to further delay the arrival of any guards. Besides the door stood a heavy looking pedestal, which was about her height and most a straight pole of metal with a coal burner on top. Gabrielle grabbed it and held it like a very heavy version of her former combat staff awaiting the arrival of any new guards.
Suddenly a large group of heavily armed guards burst in through the double doors and faced off against the strangely intimidating woman standing ready to meet them. "Stand down," the Emperor suddenly commanded in a voice full of absolute authority. The guards skidded to a sudden stop, which left them and Gabrielle staring confusedly at each other almost like children being commanded to stop playing by their parents.
"I'm afraid there has been some mistake. I was surprised to see my old teacher back from his exile and his strange companion. Please there is no further danger here, but have my servants prepare comfortable rooms for him and his companion after they have served us tea in my study. Now go," the Emperor explained to the slightly confused guards. "And take those with you," he reminded them and indicated his unconscious guards.
When the guards had left the room the Emperor seemed to study his guests for a while. He didn't speak, he just studied Master Fong and what, Gabrielle was sure, seemed to the Emperor to be a barbarian woman. A servant appeared out of seemingly nowhere and led the Emperor away, while Master Fong graciously accepted the invitation of a servant to follow him.
Gabrielle and Fong found themselves in a large room filled with tables drowning in scrolls, maps and books tossed all over them. The walls were lined with tapestries, which Master Fong explained covered shelves full of scrolls and the like. Two large windows in each end of the room let in the cooler evening air. They were seated in two comfortable chairs in front of a very messy looking lacquered wood desk. A few moments later a now dressed and combed Emperor joined them sitting across from them, while a couple of guards took up positions just out of general earshot.
"I must say I am surprised to see you Master Fong. It has been along time. It's however a most strange hour for you to make your way to me and into my bedroom no less," the Emperor commented while his dark brown eyes once again tried to take full measure of Gabrielle. However instead of getting self-conscious from the scrutiny or the presence of royalty she just thought about her own eminence and deeds in life and decided that she was the equal of any man or woman. She calmly studied him as well a relaxed smile playing on her lips, while she internally considered the many sore muscles she would have in the morning, if she went to bed without a warm bath or a massage.
"Well, it is dark times my Emperor. Refugees came to the temple and brought the news of the war. I thought about the times I spent with your father in the field, I considered my emotion about the dark times that had arrived and came to the conclusion that I felt called to help with this war before my time in this incarnation is over," Master Fong explained, his voice barely hiding his weariness.
"Ah, well your counsel will be welcome my old teacher. I had feared that I would only have one general with the skill and audacity matching that of the Green Dragon," the Emperor said and a tired smile played on his lips.
"Ah, no my Emperor, I didn't come to serve as a general. I am but a holy man. In fact the only reason I am the one speaking to you is modesty and protocol. I am by far too old and set in my ways to be of any use beyond giving a few wise words from time to time, my dear student. No, I have brought you something of much greater value than me. I have brought you her," he explained and indicated Gabrielle with a toss of his head.
"Ha, ha, you certainly haven't lost your legendary sense of humor Master Fong. This one is to be my great hope. A woman a few years younger than I and armed only with the weapons of a peasant," the Emperor snorted derisively.
"Tell him who you are. We will have him swear not to reveal it later. He knows the legends of you and Xena. Your scrolls about Lao Ma and Xena have become required reading for any Emperor since your last visit here," Fong whispered to Gabrielle.
"I am glad you think it is funny. I thought so myself for a long time," Gabrielle said dryly. "I am sorry we had to meet this way your highness. My name is Gabrielle. I come from Poteidaia a small rural village in Greece. I am also known as Gabrielle the Battling Bard. I stood with Xena against the Green Dragon both times he returned. I know that I am a foreigner, but I have be in, led and won several campaigns against enemies many times in the past. I have spent most of my adult life saving people from the ravages of war. And I want to help the people of Chin. Please allow me to," Gabrielle pleaded with all her heart and soul.
The Emperor said nothing for a while; he just studied Gabrielle even more intensely. Then he asked: "I have heard that the mighty warrior princess perished almost two years ago on the islands of the rising sun. The three toed dragon you bear on your back is it a mark from those times?"
"Yes. It was a gift from a friend," Gabrielle remarked and fought the sadness that always welled up inside her, when she thought about Xena and Akemi.
"I have heard of you Gabrielle. You are told to be brave, just and good. Not to mention one of the sovereigns of a shattered nation of warrior women," he said, as his eyes became abstracted in thought.
"Yes I was queen of an amazon tribe," Gabrielle said and almost smiled at the fact that she was not lying. She was no longer queen of her tribe but high queen of the entire amazon nation, but as that nation was supposedly dead and gone, she didn't mention it.
"I… No, my nation would be more than happy to receive any help, you would give. Welcome on our side," he said and held out his hand in a gesture common around the Mediterranean. Gabrielle grabbed his wrist in a practiced motion and sealed the deal.
"By the way you wouldn't have some amazons hanging around? I could do with some battle hardened warriors against the horde that is coming" The Emperor asked in a suddenly more friendly and tired voice.
"No, they are shattered all over the known world. I went east," Gabrielle remarked trying to sound remorseful.
"I for one have had enough for one day. You said we could borrow rooms my Emperor. Why don't you send out some servant to take care of Gabrielle's horse, get her baggage and then we can all retire for the night," Fong grumbled and yawned. He got up as the Emperor waved for an attentive servant and walked away with him. As he had almost passed out of earshot, he heard Gabrielle ask the Emperor for a promise that her name wouldn't be mentioned. She cited personal reasons and a wish to remain in the East in secret from her many enemies. He never heard his student reply, but he knew the boy, he had taught to fight, would honor any promise he made, especially when the vow was to an enchantress like Gabrielle."
"Milady," an unfamiliar voice asked her in one of the languages of Chin that she recognized. It seemed to come from afar. Slowly her eyes opened and revealed a beautiful airy room decorated with carvings, tapestries and the like. Off to her left a woman, whom she presumed was a servant, stood patiently awaiting her awakening. She barely remembered going to bed.
"Please I am no lady," Gabrielle retorted and rose in all her nakedness from the very comfortable bed. "You can just call me…" She had to pause and consider what name she would give these people. She had made an agreement with the Emperor last night that she would help if she could avoid giving anyone her real name. "Warrior Bard," she suggested. The servant just nodded and motioned towards the next room of the lavish apartments she had been given. Gabrielle was astounded to find a large scented and obviously warm bath awaiting her as if they knew her habits already. With a contended smile she stepped into the pool and sighed as the warm water swirled around her. The temple had been a great place to visit, but the lack of proper warm baths had really shaken her faith in their understanding of what was really needed to live healthily. She didn't notice the amazed stare of the servant as she caught her first good look at the softly muscled warrior woman's massive dragon tattoo.
Gabrielle had never had a servant as attentive as this one. She insisted on drying her off and wanted to help her dress as well. Gabrielle considered her dress options as she motioned for the servant to let her handle it alone. According to the last comments from the Emperor she remembered, he would be introducing her to his command staff today, so it would probably be best, if she dressed appropriately which alas was no problem as she really didn't own anything appropriate for anything but war these days. After the war she would do something about that and maybe allow herself to not only a warrior, but also a healer, bard and woman as well. She decided on wearing the kimono and hakama combination that had served her so well before.
The maid began serving her breakfast and for a while Gabrielle busied herself with eating heartily. "So do you come from Chang'an or are you from further away?" She couldn't help herself, Gabrielle had a reawakening need to talk and relate to people around her.
"I…" The maid sounded astounded at her talking for a moment. "I… Yes my family comes from Chang'an. We've been in the service of the Imperial family for two generations."
"Really then I might have met some of your ancestors once. So what is your name?" Gabrielle asked between bites of bread.
"Mai," the maid answered shyly. Gabrielle rewarded her with a warm smile.
After breakfast Gabrielle decided to finish dressing by adding the accessories to any warriors dress. The maid watched with wide eyes as Gabrielle added the black armor and bracers that she had carried in her packs from Japan to her attire. She seated the beautifully lacquered sheath containing her katana at her left side and placed her sai in their straps on her boots. After combing her recently shorn hair once she turned with a smile towards Mai and asked: "Now do you know where I am expected to be?"
Mai nodded and asked her to follow her to where the Emperor was meeting with his advisors and generals. Gabrielle for a moment considered if she was a little over armed and armored for the meeting, but decided that if Xena had been able to pull that off constantly so could she. They were in the middle of a war after all.
Gabrielle found herself directed into a large hall, where several other men were standing around a large table filled with maps talking boisterously about their exploits and how they were going to lead the armies of the Emperor to glorious victory. Neither The Emperor nor Master Fong was anywhere to be seen. Gabrielle did notice Mai slipping away to her remaining tasks as she stood in the door opening. She stopped just inside as the door to the corridors of the palace slid shut behind her. She contended herself with observing for now.
Carefully she looked and listened to the armored and armed men standing around the map table. Several of them were engaged in typical male pissing contests telling about how they lead wildly successful battles or which move they used to utterly defeat their enemy. The others were trying to convince their more boisterous companions that it wouldn't mean that they would be chosen for glory. Gabrielle nearly snorted at the thought. Only generals could call any kind of battle or war glorious or great. There was no glory or lasting greatness to be found through simple warfare, she knew this very well. She noticed eyes staring at her.
Slowly turning her gaze she saw a muscular man slightly older than the Emperor, who like her stood apart from the milling generals. He wore a suit of ordinary warrior's armor and a single long sword of Chinese make was seated on his back. Like all the others in the room he held his helmet at his side and seemed content like her to merely observe from afar.
The Emperor entered the room in full stride, wearing an almost ridiculously over-decorated suit of armor, tailed by Master Fong and a couple of people, who looked like the bureaucrats they had been blocked by last night. "Gather around," the Emperor asked and strode up to the map table. Everyone fell silent and gathered at the table.
"I've gathered you all here, so that we may initiate a campaign to stop the invaders from the North. Even as we speak here, they spread like a plaque throughout my Empire." The Emperor gestured over the main map, which showed all of Chin.
"Right now the Green Dragon, whose real name is Temudjin, is finishing securing his control of a rather large section of the Great Wall. He isn't expanding his territory, but it is just a question of days before his army is fully formed and ready. Now General Wu has led the scouts and spies, who were charged with discovering what the plans of my enemy are, and just returned this morning. Sun, would you be so kind and bring us up to date?" The Emperor motioned for the man, who had been observing just like her. He stepped forward and began unrolling a much smaller map like the one on the table. It was covering in small notes written in what looked to Gabrielle like Roman letters. An excellent code it seemed, because it looked like no one else at the table could read it.
Master Fong ambled over to stand behind her. "General Wu is the man the Emperor and I mentioned. He is the greatest tactical and strategic genius that this Empire has ever produced. He is a master swordsman and it is said that anyone he teaches carries a touch of his greatness," he whispered.
The man looked around at the gathered generals and then began to outline the lay of the land on the map. Gabrielle looked as well as listened, but her eyes weren't focused on the large map, where General Wu was pointing, but on his little map, where she discerned a lot more just by reading his scribbles. She had to strain her eyes, but she quickly grasped the facts. Temudjin had not one but four armies each organized under one general except for the largest one made up of his veteran troops, which he controlled himself. Each army was at least 20000 thousand men large and equipped mostly with light armor, bows and good swords, while Temudjin's personal army was easily 3 times that. There was a disproportionate large amount of horsemen, but most of the horses were of dubious quality as warhorses. The last word from the spies was that the armies were deploying already and that they would march not as one but each by itself on different sections of the Empire.
Gabrielle considered the routes that the spies had been able to get. If this Temudjin was a great general, then it would be obvious even to him that the quickest way to topple to ruler here in Chin would be to take and hold the capitol. The key to ruling Chin quickly was not the smaller regional cities but the Imperial seat of power and its bureaucracy which together with the Imperial army really ruled the land. This way the Empire would be forced into forming at least four armies of their own as well as to go out and protect their differing regions from the marauding invaders. "Divide and conquer," Gabrielle whispered.
The General fell silent and stared around the table. "Yes," he said as his dark eyes fell upon the suddenly blushing woman standing in the midst of the warriors trying to look as if she belonged. More eyes turned in her direction and regarded her as if they were seeing her for the first time. "It is an old Roman tactic," Wu said before he turned a questioning glance towards his Emperor, who just shook his head as if he didn't want to answer the unspoken question. General Wu shrugged and continued his explanations.
"There is unfortunately no other way that I can see my Emperor. We must split the army into four parts to match the Green Dragon's deployment and send them out to stop his advance or all of unprotected Chin will fall before him in just a few months. I fear it will be a long and hard campaign, a dreadful drain on the Empire and its people, but there simply is no other safe way. We will then put our armies in the field bolstered by the conscripts as they get trained and meet the enemy in battle," General Wu explained and looked to his Emperor for instant approval, but was surprised to find his Emperor staring past him into the eyes of the small woman, who had joined the military counsel without explanation or he noted with ire warning from his spies in the palace. To his astonishment she walked up to the table and take a long look at his private map for a moment then nodded.
"The honored General Wu is right," Gabrielle said and nodded in his direction. "There are very few other options available to you. The best thing to do is to split the army into equal parts of trained and veteran soldiers and distribute the fresh and untrained conscripts among them. Secondly you should avoid attacking for a while. Fortify the towns and cities in the path of the enemy until your army is ready to defeat them. Sure there is a chance that our armies could defeat theirs one on one, but there is no advantage to our side that guarantees it. We do have the advantage of position and knowledge of the countryside. I say be defensive at least until we have to upper hand, then we go out to meet them on the battlefield. If it is done right, time will be on our side instead of on theirs", she said and kept her gaze locked on the maps on the table as if she could come up with a better plan just by staring at them.
Protest exploded around her, generals spluttering at the outrage of letting an army walking around in the empire burning villages, when they could surely defeat them on a battlefield. Gabrielle noted Master Fong looking at her with approval, while General Wu looked at her with bewilderment showing in his eyes. "Quiet," the Emperor commanded.
"Who is this upstart woman?" One of the older generals said and shoved at a pointed finger in her direction. Gabrielle smiled wistfully, but kept her eyes on the Emperor.
"This woman is a veteran warrior of more battles than you General Bai. She has graciously offered her services and great abilities to the Empire in exchange for the respect that must be afforded such a warrior and as well as secrecy about her involvement in this war. I gave her my word in this matter. You would have me break it?" He asked and let his voice drop to a low threatening tone. The General just shook his head. The Emperor fell silent once more staring at the map for a few moments, walked away from the table and spoke in whispers with one of his bureaucrats for a few moments then returned to the table.
"I have decided that both the suggestions of General Wu and the Warrior Bard are to be heeded. Furthermore I place General Wu in command of the entire war effort and place all my faith in his abilities to guide those of you he chooses to lead his sub-armies to victory. Now please if all of you would please leave me and the General alone," the Emperor said and waved people away. Gabrielle and Master Fong joined the quiet procession out of the room.
Just as they stepped out into the corridor the bureaucrat that the Emperor had talked to stepped up to them. "The Emperor requests that you wait out here in the corridor, while he confers with his general. He would like to speak to you in a few minutes," he explained then hurried off.
"You did well in there," Master Fong commented after several minutes of waiting in silence.
"I've seen it done so many times before this is almost trivial," Gabrielle answered and returned to regarding the decorated walls of the corridor. She had several ideas on how the architecture and construction methods could be used by her amazons, if she ever returned to them.
"So did you like your bath," Master Fong said after another couple of minutes.
"I have you to thank for that? Well thanks a lot it was absolutely wonderful," she replied with a smile.
"Well I did have to listen to you complaining about the lack of warm baths for over three months," he said. Gabrielle didn't reply.
"You're awfully quiet," he commented shortly thereafter.
"Yeah, I'm sorry. It's just I've been trying to figure out a quicker way to end this war. Do you think the Northerners would give up if Temudjin died?" She asked.
"No, this is about a whole lot more than just a simple invasion Little Dragon. The wars and invasions have gone back and forth many times. There is more bad blood between our two nations than between your Xena and that warlord called Caesar," he explained with a sigh.
"Then I'm back at square one: plain old warfare," Gabrielle said.
The door opened and a smiling Emperor beckoned them to come inside. "I've explained to General Wu that you're a very able commander and warrior my dear Warrior Bard. And while I am sure he still harbors some doubts, I've commanded him to give you command of one of my armies. I know you won't prove my trust was misplaced Warrior Bard," he explained and ducked out of the room, while Gabrielle and Master Fong walked inside. "Now Master Fong I would be glad to have you here in Chang'an, where I will be preparing the defenses and coordinating the bureaucracy so that the armies will be kept well-fed and stocked with weaponry and equipment. So shall we leave our two Generals to their jobs then," the Emperor asked and gestured for the old man to follow him.
"I fear I must ask my Emperor to let me continue with my calling. As I tried to explain last night I am not here to participate in the war as the Emperor's advisor. I am here as guide and advisor to the Warrior Bard. She came to us seeking spiritual guidance and we've not yet decided that she can be without that. So until that day I will remain at her side," Master Fong explained.
"Very well then I ask you to commit all of her deeds to paper so that I may read about them in a way not phrased by some soulless bureaucrat," the Emperor commanded, smiled and disappear out in the shadows of the corridor.
"Alright this is your show General Wu, what do you propose we do for an initial deployment of the armies?" Gabrielle asked and gave him a friendly smile.
The General looked at her for a moment then looked down at some notes he had been doing. After ignoring her for a few moments he said: "I guess you could take a regiment of cavalry men and some conscripts down to guard the south eastern cities".
Gabrielle looked down at the map for a moment and crooked a thin eyebrow. "But that would be pointless further more I am fairly sure that I could…" She said but General Wu interrupted her.
"Now I don't know what foolishness convinced the Emperor that you should go out onto a battlefield. I am sure that you can use those weapons you carry and I believe my Emperor, when he tells me that you have been in many battles and that you've even led a few. But I will not let some unproven wench come in a take control over one fourth of our armies and expect her to understand how to lead an army of a people, whom she has no understanding off. I am sure you are not familiar with our methods of communication, command and signals and until that day, if it ever comes, I cannot afford to give you command of more troops. Take those I've given you, go out, perform your task and be glad," he explained, while looking her in the eye.
Honesty and honor shone from his eyes and so Gabrielle couldn't bring herself to countermand his orders. He was right. These weren't her people. She didn't know how their army operated and so this was maybe the best way. But she swore that it would only be a start. She had a sense, a premonition perhaps, that she would be a part of the solution to this war. She would be there for the end. She only had to prove to this General that she was worthy of it. He handed her a couple of notes, which he had put his seal on. "These are your orders. These you should give to the bureaucrats in the court, they will give you directions to your troops and these will identify you as the commander of the regiment, when you get there," he explained and turned his eyes back to his work. Gabrielle walked towards the exit.
"Aren't you going to protest to the Emperor?" Master Fong asked just as soon as they were out of General Wu's earshot.
"No, he's right. I am not familiar with the structure and style of command of their army. I would've done exactly the same if it had been an amazon force we had been talking about. If I had some way to end this quickly then I would've protested. But the fact is that I don't, so I will just go out and do the most good that I can and hope it will help," Gabrielle explained as they headed down the corridor at a brisk pace.
"I would understand if you went somewhere else if you felt you could do more good there," she commented as she headed towards her room to pick up her things.
"Don't be foolish Little Dragon. I meant everything I told my Emperor. Now go and get your things, while I try to handle the bureaucrats. I fear that you would end up having a bad day and then so would he, if you went to them being a woman and all that," he said and held out his hand to receive the papers that General Wu had given her.
Gabrielle walked out into the glowing sunlight with her baggage slung over her shoulder and looked around for her friend.
"Over here," Fong's voice came from a place in the middle of the courtyard, where he and Ghost towered amongst the people walking back and forth. Gabrielle waved and walked in their direction under her heavy load.
"You women, you always seem to have so much more baggage than us men. Now look at me. I just have my simple little satchel here and I'm good," Fong said and held out the reins of Ghost.
Gabrielle took them and then let them drop free, while gesturing for Ghost to stay still, while she carefully distributed her possession on her horse. After assuring herself that everything was in order she vaulted into the saddle and turned her head towards Master Fong. "So was everything in order with the papers," she asked.
"Yes my dear. Your troops are awaiting their new commander out on the field to the South. A runner has been dispatched to notify them that you're coming," he said and gestured towards one of the gates leading out into the city.
"Off we go then," Gabrielle said and tapped Ghost gently once with her feet. They set off taking the next step of their adventure.
The staging area for the Imperial army was positively huge. Tent upon tent filled an area rivaling that of the entire city of Chang'an. And the place seethed with activity. Again Master Fong proved invaluable to her, when he barked orders like he was a general rather than a simple monk from a rural temple. Quickly the guards gave them directions to the regiment that she had been designated. Gabrielle dismounted and followed Master Fong on foot as they approached the section of the camp, where what would be her warriors rested.
"Show no weakness. You're the commander, they must come to see you as undefeatable, strong and always in control," Xena's advice given to her before they headed for Helicon echoed through her mind as they came into view of the regiment. Gabrielle almost gasped as she realized that this regiment was a thousand units thing and that was excluding the retainers going around to make everything work when there wasn't a battle going on and then there were all the warhorses on top. Steeling herself she strode towards the guards that sat casually playing mah-jongg in the shade of a canvas in front of the entrance to the fence that surrounded the cavalry regiment.
"Hey we haven't ordered any camp followers have we?" One of the guards asked rudely and appraised her like she was some cow on a market. Fortunately for that mans front teeth she had been away from her amazons for a while now and so the reflex to knock him into the land of Morpheus was easily ignored. But she knew that she needed to establish respect for her person immediately, or they would ignore her commands at times when it was critical. Gabrielle strode up to the guard, making it look like she didn't see the others, unceremoniously lifted him out of his seat and threw him out into the sun.
He struggled to rise, while all his friends fumbled with their swords as they tried to rise. Gabrielle drew one of her sai and threw it into the ground between the guard's legs just inches from his crotch all in one liquid and lightning quick move. "You will address me as Commander or Ma'am. Is that clear?" She said in a voice loud enough to be heard well into camp.
The guards stopped in their tracks dumbfounded for a moment. Gabrielle walked over and pulled her sai out of the trampled grass. "Now if you don't mind I would like to be shown the way to my tent, then I will meet with my officers," she commanded and gestured for the guard to rise.
For a moment he seemed confused then nodded, turned and gestured for her to follow him. He led them into the camp past the outer regions, the large area, where the horses were corralled and a couple of mess tents towards a section of slightly larger domed tents, which as she had guessed before entering the camp were the abodes of the officers. Rank as always granted privileges in exchange for the pressures of command.
The guard knocked on the wooden desk set before the large tent in front of which he had stopped. "Yes," a voice came from deep within the tent and a muscular man in a colorful officer's uniform ducked out of the tent. Gabrielle noticed how he wore one of the typical large and long swords at his side. The man rose to his full height and stood towering over them all.
"Captain Chang, I… This…" The guard seemed to search for a way to explain why he had brought her there in a way that wouldn't get him in trouble.
Gabrielle decided to hurry things along. "I am the new commander of this regiment," she explained.
The Captain blinked in surprise and stuttered: "But… You're a woman."
"Why does this surprise these men so much? This is the land that brought forth Lao Ma and they're still stuck on that," she thought, but only asked: "And?"
"Well how am I to take commands from a woman? The men will never obey you," he said still seemingly surprised by her presence in his camp.
"Captain Chang, was it? The Emperor himself suggested me for this position and General Wu approved. I am a veteran of many wars and a capable warrior. Don't worry about me taking command, but if you think the men will have a problem with that, then I might as well prove to them that I am good enough to be their leader," she said while showing him the papers given to her by General Wu.
He read for a few moments then looked up at her again. "And how do you propose to do that?" He asked.
"Well how about I give them a small show of my fighting prowess. That always seems to impress men," she suggested and looked from the Captain to Master Fong for approval. "I think we should show the officers my skills," she suggested.
"Good idea," Master Fong replied, "I'll help of course."
"You do that," she replied. "Gather the officers over by the horses," Gabrielle said to the Captain and mounted Ghost.
A few minutes later Gabrielle sat looking out over the small field. A small group of curious soldiers had gathered to watch, why the officers had suddenly been asked to show up for some demonstration. Gabrielle smiled and took up the amazon bow that had proven so well suited for mounted archery and cocked an arrow. She looked over to Master Fong, who was standing besides unobtrusively besides the Captain, whom she was sure would become her second in command. "Yah," she yelled and spurred Ghost into a gallop.
Gabrielle thundered towards one of the targets that they probably used for charging practice and quickly while passing sank three arrows into it. She continued towards the assembled officers and just a few horse lengths away, she made Ghost skid to a stop. Like she had seen Xena do so many times before she flipped out of the saddle and thankfully landed on her feet with her sai drawn.
As if they had planned it, Master Fong suddenly flung two daggers at her as she began walking towards the officers. Gabrielle saw them move through the air and threw her sai to intercept them. He had however already thrown a third one and with what looked like practiced ease she caught that one in her left hand. She continued to walk towards them.
"Now I could show a hundred more tricks and moves like that, but we're going to war and so my commands and decisions will be just as important as my martial skills. I've been appointed your leader, but I am not opposed to suggestions and if I am about to make a mistake I would like to be told. But understand that if I give you a command, you'll follow it to the letter and intent of the word or suffer the consequences," she explained, "I am known only as the Warrior Bard and you can address me as either that, Commander or Ma'am. Now gather the supplies, setup the supply routes, we've been orders to march southeast to guard against the invaders." And without another word her officers followed her commands."
No amount of warrior training or trouble in life had been able to remove her need to just stop once in a while and smell the flowers or admire the grandeur of nature surrounding her. Today she was marveling, however at a series of manmade creations the likes of which she had never seen before. Valley up and down covered in irrigated terraces, where rice bushels were growing.
"Little Dragon, if we're to make it back to camp before dusk, we should leave now," Master Fong suggested from his seat on the riding horse she had demanded he used as long as they were in the field.
"I guess," she replied and cast another glance out over the valley and the small village at the bottom. She spun Ghost around and tapped her sides twice. They set off on a steady gait, which made Gabrielle feel her sore bottom with every step. They had been patrolling the southern regions for nearly a month now and had seen nothing of the enemy. Every few days the couriers came with reports of the war, sometimes good sometimes bad, but none of it showing any sign that she would be able to do any good with her small regiment of cavalry and conscripted infantry, which they had picked up from this region's capitol.
"Aren't we supposed to receive another courier today?" Master Fong asked.
"Yup, but that can't really excite me anymore…" She paused for a while. "Damn it Fong I am going nuts waiting around down here. We're doing no good here and there is sure as Tarterus many other places and armies, which would be happy to be bolstered with a regiment of cavalry," she ranted.
Master Fong nodded. "True. And there is soon no reason to claim that you don't understand our army or military culture. You are a well liked commander, Little Dragon, whether you know it or not. Sure they aren't sure how you'll do in fight just yet? But I know from Chang that you're a very capable commander, when it comes to taking care of your regiment," he told her.
"Yes I know, but as long as I don't prove myself as a capable field commander in a battle there is no way the generals are going to let me help out. I am so sure that I could do some good. I mean, just look at last week, when we got the report on how that idiot General Bai got his ass kicked even while outnumbering his enemy. That fool completely ignored that his enemy's army is largely comprised of cavalry instead of footmen," Gabrielle said and grumbled as they rode towards the camp that she had set up just a day's wagon ride from the major coastal town in the area to discourage her men from going there too often.
Gabrielle had gotten used to focusing on her hearing and listening to what lay behind the sounds and did so unconsciously like had done so many times already this day. She heard hooves again the packed dirt of the road. A man's labored breathing was overlaid by the gasps of a horse ridden almost to death. A wounded man was riding for his life in their direction. Gabrielle turned Ghost and set off in gallop. "Follow me," she commanded and rode back the way they had come. Confused but trusting his young friend Master Fong carefully turned the horse that he didn't have so good control over and set off after the blonde warrior woman.
Gabrielle heard the man drop of his horse just before she crested the small hillock on the road. She saw the horse stop and shuddered at the sight of its sweating body and foaming mouth. The man was dressed like a Chinese soldier, but his scabbard was empty and he seemed to be clutching his side as he struggled back on his feet. Gabrielle had Ghost stop and quickly jumped out of her saddle to run up to the soldier.
"Please help me," he said and nearly collapsed into her arms as she put a hand on his shoulder.
"What happened?" She asked and saw that he was bleeding from a small wound in his back. It looked like he had been shot with a crossbow and had then just broken of the shaft of the arrow.
"We were falling back," he gasped in pain as she examined the wound with gentle hands. "But Djenga the general of our enemy's army had set up a trap in the pass that we had to use. General Bai was dying, but he still managed to command me to ride this way and warn the Warrior Bard. To tell the poor souls guarding the coast that the enemy is coming and they are taking no prisoners," he passed out. Gabrielle checked his pulse, then ran up to Ghost and got a small knife, needle and thread from her pack. Quickly she ran back and cut the arrowhead from his back and quickly sewed the wound shut. Then she tore some of her clothing for bandages just as Master Fong caught up to her.
"That looks like one of our soldiers," he commented.
"It is. I'm getting my wish. The enemy is coming this way. It seems that General Bai managed to get his army completely defeated," she said and while making a field bandage for the wounded soldier. Her eyes betrayed a weary sadness that could only be seen in the eyes of those having seen war.
"We need to get back this guy back to camp alive. He has a lot of important information in his head that I'm going to need, if we're to survive the next week or so. He should make it," she said after finishing his bandage and turned to regard his poor horse. It was barely standing and she could see that if it wasn't already a complete loss then it would not be able to get them back to camp quick enough. She took the wounded soldier and loaded him onto the back of Ghost after apologizing to her warhorse for the wear; she was going to put on her.
"How close are they?" Fong asked and looked in the direction the rider had come from.
"Depending on how hard he has been riding his horse and judging from his wound I'd say they're at least four days march from here. No army moves very far in a day especially not one, which has just been in combat with another army. We might even get as much as a week, but somehow I doubt it. Come on," she commanded and began riding back towards their camp again.
Fong looked after her then shook his head with a smile and followed her again. Sometimes he was amazed how well this woman handled sudden changes in her life. She seemed to take everything in stride. Maybe it was the effect so many years of adventuring, maybe it was just who she was.
The soldier was safe in the healer's tent as Gabrielle strode towards Chang's tent. "Captain, could I have a word," she asked before entering. Chang was sitting at the wooden table that he had gotten carted down here.
"Yes, commander," he inquired politely. Gabrielle couldn't quite figure out, if he had accepted her as his commander yet or not.
"I just found a wounded rider on my patrol. We can expect an army several times the size of ours to arrive within four days to a week. General Bai's army apparently got in the way of Djenga and unlike the last time they didn't get away with a bloody nose this time. Bai managed to get his army defeated and shattered. Maybe there will come some stragglers in over the next few days, but we can expect some of them to be spies or even saboteurs. So all in all I guess we're in a bit of a jam," she explained and waited patiently for him to recover.
Chang rose from his chair, got a map and unrolled it on the table. "We're here." He indicated a spot on the map. "The last reports on General Bai's army said that they were around here. Now his retreat probably took him in this direction and if Djenga and his army are heading this way, they'll probably take this route." His finger slid down a series of mostly dry valleys heading towards the city of Suzhou, which they were guarding.
"Okay then. We need to do several things. First of all there should be dispatched a messenger to Suzhou so that they can prepare for an attack or siege. In the mean time we need to come up with a way to defeat Djenga's army." Gabrielle sat down on one of Chang chairs. He followed suit.
"First of all we need information. We need to know more about which way he is going to come from, Chang. We also need to know his numbers and intent," she commented and studied the map once again.
"We can probably get control of Bai's spies, but if he was so easily defeated maybe we don't want their information. They could very well be traitors," he mused. "I will have our best scouts out before midday, Little Dragon."
Like so many others amongst her soldiers Chang had taken to using Fong's nickname for her as it seemed more personal than any of the other names she had given them to use. Gabrielle knew very well that speculation about her real identity was rampant amongst the officers, who dealt with her everyday. The soldiers were a bit more indifferent probably because they assumed she was just a figurehead for Chang or Fong. "Could you get the scouts and messenger on their way? I would like to sit here and study your maps for a little while," she explained.
Chang rose and walked to the door. "What should we do, if we manage to get hold of a spy?" He asked before ducking outside.
"If he is one of Bai's old ones, get his information and if he asks for anything on us give him something bogus in return. If they want to come here, bring them then I'll deal with them. In fact if you can, try to capture some of Djenga's scouts, I think they could tell us a lot. Oh and make sure to tell our scouts as little as possible about anything. To them we're not moving from this spot." Gabrielle turned her face back down to look at the map of the region.
"We are moving then," Chang asked after a few moments of thought.
"I don't know yet. If we are then I'll leave someone here to guide them to us. I don't know enough about this Djenga guy yet to try tricks like that. But give me a little time and we'll see," Gabrielle explained and rose to follow Chang out. "I'll go look over all reports we've had on this guy. Maybe I can figure him out," she said and walked towards the huge tent she shared with Fong.
Fong seemed to be writing in one of the books that he had brought from Chang'an. He had run out of fresh paper, for the reports that he diligently sent to the Emperor every week, just last week. So now he had begun recording the event as they happened in the back of a book on warfare that General Wu had begun writing and had asked for Fong's opinion on. Now he used the remaining paper for his reports instead. "Ah, my dear, I've talked to the healer and he said that the soldier you saved will probably wake up today or tomorrow," he commented as she began sorting through the scrolls and papers scattered throughout their shared abode.
"Good, I hope he can tell me more about what happened and how this Djenga fellow fights. The more we know of him and the sooner the better. If I can figure him out and maybe even choose and prepare the battlefield we may have a good chance of getting out of this more or less unscathed," she said and began reading one of the scrolls.
Her grasp of languages was astounding to Fong. He had seen many people struggle to learn to either speak or read their languages, but this woman seemed to grasp them even down to the nuances of the different dialects within short periods of time. He looked down at the page and took up his quill to write the next entry to his journal.
The midday sun was intense next day as Gabrielle ran out to greet the first of her returning scouts. The courier with her battle report hadn't arrived and so she assumed that he had been intercepted, however the soldier she had rescued, had woken up and been lucid already in the evening the day before and he had given her valuable information on the size and fighting style of her enemy. Both Chang and Fong agreed with her assessment that General Bai had been defeated by a combination of trusting his spies a lot, his own brilliance too much and underestimating the abilities of Djenga's cavalry. The cavalry seemed to be his greatest strength and the unit this general understood best if Gabrielle had figured him correctly. Now all she needed was some information on his route but it could take days before she learned. She approached the scout leader, who was talking heatedly with Chang.
"Why did they come back already?" She asked.
"They were ambushed by several foot soldiers from Djenga's army. My guess would be that he is seeding the hills and valleys with them so that he can approach more or less undetected. It could turn into a problem, if all our scouts and spies are met with so much resistance," Chang answered and looked to her for answers.
"It is just as well. All right Captain, I'm leaving you in command. I want you to get everyone ready to march within the hour I return. I need to go out and choose a battlefield anyhow, so why don't we turn it into a little scouting trip while we're at it. Get these men some fresh horses then we'll go," she commanded and turned on her heel to go get Ghost.
Gabrielle and the four scouts sat under a large tree, while their horses were tied to another one just feet away. Heavy rain pelted the area and turned everything wet and the ground muddy. "This is both good and bad. It's good, because this will hinder the approach of Djenga's army. It's bad, because I'm bloody freezing," Gabrielle thought and shivered so bad that her teeth nearly clattered. They had been on the road for nearly two days now and it had started rain earlier the day they had left the camp. They had seen neither hide nor hair of either Djenga's scouts or soldiers yet.
Gabrielle suddenly heard a horse snort and hooves treading through the heavy mud coming down the road towards them. "Hide the horses then yourselves," she commanded the four scouts and began crawling into the tree which had heavy branches reaching out over the muddy road.
The scouts had disappeared with all the horses into the heavy undergrowth surrounding the road and left Gabrielle alone. She glanced out over the road trying to pierce the veil of water created by the rain, her hearing incapable of breaching the sound of thousands of drops of water falling, she contented herself with waiting. Two men on horses appeared through the curtain of rain and rode towards them. Their differing appearance, armor and weapons marked them clearly as members of Djenga's army. Gabrielle for a moment wished she hadn't left the Chakram with Varia and Cyane and vowed to collect it as soon as she had finished this war, as they passed below her branch. Gabrielle grabbed the branch with both hands and swung herself down with both her legs cocked for a split kick. Just as she had picked up speed, she kicked each of the men in the back sending them flying out of their saddles. She dropped to stand, while their horses ran off spooked by the sudden disappearances of their riders.
One of the men staggered to his feet.
The scouts came running out of the undergrowth with their weapons drawn.
Gabrielle drew her sai, kicked the enemy soldier in his chest returning him to the ground.
The scouts surrounded the two men, who chose wisely to surrender. Gabrielle watched without glee, how her soldiers disarmed then tied up their two enemies. Gabrielle walked over to the two prisoners and the soldiers surrounding them. "Go get our horses, while I have a little chat with these boys," she commanded
Just as soon as the scouts were out of immediate earshot, she winced and put the Pinch on one of the prisoners. He immediately started choking. "I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds left to live. If you tell me, what I want to know I'll save your life," Gabrielle said and tried very hard to sound intimidating in spite of shivering in the cold rain.
"How large is Djenga's army?" She asked slipping into the language of the northern plains that she had learned from Xena after telling about her and Borias' contacts with them.
"8-8000," he stammered through the pain.
"Good, now which way is he taking towards Suzhou?" Gabrielle grabbed his armor and lifted him closer as he whispered.
"He is going through these valleys," the choking soldier managed. Gabrielle knew she had still around 20 seconds left.
"How far behind you, is he?" She whispered the question, while holding the paling soldier closer.
"Three days at least, more probably with all this blasted rain," he sighed as blood flowed from his nose. Gabrielle felt the usual cold shiver in her bones as she remembered the times; she had been put into the Pinch. It was a painful and scary experience. She undid the Pinch then mercifully knocked him unconscious to save him from the hours of headaches that almost always followed a Pinch.
As the scouts approached with their horses she sauntered over and took the rein of Ghost. "We will bring them back to camp," she indicated the prisoners and waited until the scouts had secured them on their horses. "Let's go," she commanded and they rode back through the rain and continued even into the night.
Gabrielle paced back and forth before Chang's table. She had gotten back a few hours ago and just managed to get a little sleep before she had raced over to consider the map of the region again. Outside the rain continued to pelt her army. Gabrielle looked out the opening and watched the rain hitting the muddy ground. An inspiration came to her. Quickly she dashed over to the maps and looked at it, but instead of concentrating on the route that she had been told her enemy would take she looked at the valleys full of irrigated fields and the dams further up north that controlled the flow of the rivers in the area. Gabrielle smiled for the first time in days and quickly dashed out of the tent.
"Chang," she yelled as she approached the huge series of tents, where they kept their horses.
"Yes, Little Dragon," a voice answered from shoeing area.
"I got a plan," she explained. It was enough to coax him away from his horse and out into the rain.
"I'm going to need some, who knows the countryside around here like the back of his hand and the fastest rider we can spare in combat. You'll have to leave after you get me that. I want you to go out with a sizeable detachment of scouts and keep exact track of Djenga's army without getting caught understand. When they enter the Zhou valley I want you to light a signal that I'm going to make in a few moments. Okay? Okay," she decided.
Chang only nodded mutely and ran off to do what she had asked him to before getting his men ready to ride out. Just as he was about to saddle his horse his commander appeared at his side once again managing to get close to him without him noticing. "Here, when they enter the valley set fire to the cloth and throw it away. Don't go near it. Oh and here is a reserve if the first one fails to work. I didn't have time to test it," she explained and dashed off. He examined the strange bamboo tubes wrapped in paper that she had given him. His eyes widened as he realized what the black dust on the paper could be. He looked at the spot where his commander had been standing. It would seem this woman had knowledge that was now forgotten in this land, knowledge that had been forbidden for ages. Knowledge, he realized, which had not seen the light of day since the legendary Xena and her partner Gabrielle had defeated the last Green Dragon and his sister a generation ago. Chang suddenly swallowed as he recalled the legends of Xena. She was told to have been a tall black haired woman with sky blue eyes, an undefeatable warrior filled with the wisdom of the heavens. At her side a small blonde woman with green eyes, who fought wars with sadness in her heart and either a staff or Sais in her hands. Gabrielle the battling bard, she was named, a storyteller of legendary capacity, a warrior taught by Xena and friend to all good people. He had recently heard stories that those two legends had returned from the West as if no time had passed for them and gone onto the mysterious islands of the rising sun. There it was told, the mighty warrior princess had died honorably making the battling bard her successor. Chang swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat and swung himself into his saddle. It was only a suspicion, but it was possible, he thought as he rode out of the camp with his men.
Gabrielle was insanely busy. She had once again broken her promise to Xena and made black powder, but this time she wouldn't use it to kill people only to send signals back and forth and clear a few obstacles. Gabrielle stuffed the last black powder bomb into its bamboo tube and quickly set about destroying the ingredients and implements she had been using. Then she took the bombs and went out to talk to the Lieutenants and their small squads of riders that she had decided would be send out to do this job.
The days had seemed filled with fevered activity as her infantry dug ditches in the rice fields and put the sharpened bamboo spikes into them, while her cavalry prepared the fight that would be fought in the hills surrounding the valley. Now all they could do was to wait in their positions, while the forward scouts scuttled back and forth reporting the approaching army. Her luck was holding and the rain had continued on and off again until late last night. Now she hoped that everything would go down as she had hoped. Fong stood beside her in their carefully crafted shelter just like the hundreds of other shelters hiding her cavalry all through out the overgrown sides of the valley. Only the bottom of the valley where a shallow river had cut a path that was easily traversable by an army and Gabrielle had carefully seeded that river with underwater ditches just where it spilled out onto the plain leading towards Suzhou. She hoped it would be enough. Then far away she heard the boom of Chang's black powder signal. Hopefully it wouldn't alert the approaching army too much.
One of her lookouts came running. "Djenga and his cavalry are riding fast through the valley," he reported.
"Damn that man," Gabrielle said and looked out of the leaves. Her surprise hadn't arrived yet, but she had given strict orders that her troops were not to attack the enemy until they came up into the hills.
She watched in concentration as Djenga, a rail thin and muscled man, and nearly a thousand of his troops headed towards the mouth of the valley. The rest were only cautiously entering the valley. No matter what she did, they would discover the trap, when they reached the spikes. Suddenly a couple of armed soldier wearing the colors of Bai's destroyed army ran out of the forest into the middle of a fording of the river not far behind Djenga and his troops. They ran like possessed trying to avoid discovery just as a sudden thundering rang throughout the valleys. Gabrielle would've smirked, if she had been mean-spirited, as she imagined the huge wall of dirty water from all the previously dammed and rain filled rivers in the entire area suddenly refilling their old river bed. Her bombs had worked and now the dammed rivers would help her.
"Those men are most likely stragglers from Bai's army," Fong said after squinting his eyes.
"By the gods, how did they get down there without anyone noticing," Gabrielle yelled and vaulted into the saddle of Ghost. She set off in full gallop crashing through their covering, barreling at high speed towards the helpless soldiers, who were in a very bad place to be right then.
"What is she doing?" One of her officers asked in amazement.
"What her nature tells her to," Fong answered and kept his eyes locked on the progress of his friend.
A wall of water filled with dirt and timber thundered into the valley at high speed. It came from all the lowlands. It tore into the huge army of the Mongols like it wasn't there and thundered down the valley towards Djenga and his troops. And towards the helpless soldiers struggling with the fording meant for horses.
Commands were yelled and the formerly so ordered columns of Djenga's armies split into chaos as they made for the hills. They waded right into the arms of Gabrielle waiting army. But Gabrielle saw none of this.
She screamed: "Grab onto my saddle," as she raced with the approaching wall of water towards the soldiers trying desperately to leave the suddenly lethal place to be.
She rode across the bare stone. The brownish white wave headed down the final bend towards the ford.
Ghost spurted into the still shallow water of the stream.
The soldier finally saw her.
"Jump on," she screamed, but the noise of the raging river drowned out her voice.
The water was a couple of horse lengths away.
The men grabbed hold of her saddle as she passed them. Ghost's muscles strained and she slowed as their weight was added. Gabrielle spurred her on as they headed for the safer shore.
She looked over her shoulder.
The water was frothing at their heels.
And suddenly they were riding through undergrowth instead of river. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and turned her head to survey the battlefield, while the men let go of her horse and the remnants of the enemy army passed by in the raging river still only a few paces away. Things were progressing almost as planned. The large army had been shattered and probably severely damaged by the flood, in fact only the force that had followed the general was still fighting.
Only problem was that most of them had chosen to ride to one side of the now raging river and so there was no way for half of her army to help the other half as they fought to keep the cavalry contained. She was stuck on the wrong side, so she and the officers she soon managed to gather could only watch with chagrin as Djenga and the meager remains of his army fought their way out of the valley and headed back out into the wilderness. "This will take a little longer than expected then," Gabrielle sighed and went to help her soldiers as they began constructing a sturdy bridge, so they could rejoin their comrades."
Four months had passed since she had destroyed the bulk of Djenga's army. But their battle hadn't ended with that encounter. After over a month of skirmishes in the valleys Djenga had laid siege on Suzhou after tricking her into moving off to counter a fake maneuver that he had staged just for her spies. She had been forced to allow the siege knowing well that an attack to pin him against the wall was not a good idea until she had gotten her infantry back from the valleys, where his trick had scattered them. It had taken her a harrowing month of hit and run attack by her cavalry now better trained at horseback archery than any other unit in the Imperial army, before Djenga had withdraw back to the valleys two days east of the city.
And they were in a way both in the same situation. They both needed reinforcement when none where forthcoming. At least she had regular supplies now, unlike her increasingly decrepit enemy, whose army was forced to forage and plunder the countryside for their supplies. The people were suffering as she knew they would during the prolonged war. And it looked like it wouldn't abate soon either. Temudjin constantly proved himself to be an unpredictable enemy and an uncanny general. While the ever growing Imperial army tore at his generals' armies, he and his huge army moved around seemingly aimless and plundered in the remotest corners of the Empire. Rumors abounded that this war was secondary to him, only a distraction to allow him to do something else. But that was not Gabrielle's concern right now, she decided. She focused her mind on the task at hand.
Chang walked through the soggy camp just outside the walls of Suzhou. He saw some of the infantry walking past him smiling proudly in their new clothes and armor, a gift from some of the local nobles. He knew also that they weren't smiling, because of the clothes were new. They were smiling, because the clothes displayed to marks of their proud and by now famed unit. All of the Little Dragon's officers had put in for the change in the regimental badge and now they wore it with pride. No longer did they have the sign of their original home city on their chests, now they carried the mark of the Little Dragon proudly on their backs.
Chang clearly recalled when they had first seen the Dragon's mark on the back of his commander. A unit had been trying to lure in a patrol of Mongols by having one of their horses act lame, but they had been far too successful and so a squad of nearly a hundred bloodthirsty warriors had descended upon them. If the Little Dragon had remained under the cover of her shelter then the regiment of Djenga's infantry, which followed in the tracks of the large patrol, would've been easy pickings for her cavalry. But she hadn't sacrificed them for a battle that wouldn't have been a sure thing and instead chose to ride out and destroy the patrol before it slaughtered the men. Chang remembered the hard fight that had ensued. He shuddered at the deadly efficiency of her razor sharp blade, which she only drew if she wanted to spill the blood of her enemy. And he remembered how an arrow had sped across the battle field and had bounced harmlessly off her unarmored back, but had remained stuck in her clothes. He remembered how he had continually demanded that she be treated for that wound and how she had lifted up the back of her foreign dress to reveal her unharmed back and the image of the Dragon to him and all the officers at her side. The description had spread all throughout camp and now all her men, who already admired their Little Dragon, believed that she truly was a Dragon descended to be amongst men.
Chang smiled at the thought, because he knew very well from hearing his commander and her friend the monk speak about their aches or seeing her bandage a cut on her legs or shoulder that the fair woman was not a divine being even if he regarded her as a blessing. She was by far the smartest, wisest and most humane leader he had ever served with. Even as he walked through camp, he knew where to find her, if she was in her tent to plan or eat, if she wasn't caring for her warhorse, if she wasn't meditating with her monk then she would be with the healers working as hard as any of them. Chang entered the tent of his commander after nodding politely to the guards posted there at all times.
Master Fong sat in his chair continuing to write in another of his miniscule journals of the Little Dragon's adventures. The first volume intended for the Emperor had been stolen, probably by some of the men seeking a souvenir of their commander or maybe to sell for profit in a city suddenly fascinated with the successful woman, who had so far managed to fend of a powerful general controlling an army now only twice the size of hers, so now the monk never left his writings out of his sight earning him the reputation of being the commander's scribe instead of her confidant. "Would you know where the Little Dragon is?" Chang asked as politely as he could not being one of the followers of this man's Buddhism he still respected any man of the cloth.
"She has been with the healer for a couple of hours now, but she didn't get much for breakfast, so she should be here… well now", Fong explained as the Little Dragon entered the tent followed closely by her maid. Chang regarded the maid for a moment. She was another oddity in this camp of warriors. She had appeared a while ago just wandering into camp demanding to see her mistress. After presenting Fong and the Little Dragon with a letter she had then set about taking care of the Little Dragon's every need as best she could. The only other thing he knew of her was her name: Mai.
"Ah, hi Chang," his commander dropped down into her large chair besides her table filled with battle plans most of them fakes left for any spy to find he presumed as he had never seen his commander set any of her plans down on paper.
"Yes, Little Dragon, I wanted come give you some good news. A heavy protected courier delivered this," he said and presented her with the scroll that he had gotten no more than ten minutes ago. His commander gently took the paper from his hands and he noticed that both her hands and clothes were splattered here and there with the blood of those she sought to heal. She read in silence then sat the scroll down into a torch and watched it disintegrate in the flames ensuring that no one she didn't trust got to read the news. "That is both good and bad news," she replied and gave them all a weary but happy smile. As always it never seemed to fully reach her eyes.
"What is happening?" Master Fong asked and looked genuinely interested in anything other than the journals for the first time this week at least in his estimation. He would probably welcome the news just like the Little Dragon.
"General Wu has sent a large contingent of veteran soldiers this way. They should be here in just a few days. He asks that I use them well and get rid of Djenga as soon as possible," she explained.
"Get rid of Djenga. Just like that huh?" The monk looked at the commander in confusion. Chang kept from smiling out of respect and the fact that he hadn't been told the entire message yet.
"Yes, it seems that Temudjin is getting fed up with sightseeing and has ordered all the armies to collect in one place, probably to march on Chang'an at the first given moment. Only there aren't that many people on the way back to him and Djenga is probably the only competent general he has left at this point. So our Grand General is shipping me 5000 of his best infantry, so that I make sure that Djenga and his troops don't make it back to join up with Temudjin," she answered and took up a rolled up scroll that he knew was a map of the region. For a moment she looked lost in thought then unrolled on the table in front of them.
"Chang, how long does a soldier take to get back on his feet after such a sea trip?" She asked and looked at him.
He thought back on the times he had sailed and guessed. "I think we could have them ready to march two days after they arrive," he said with all the conviction he could muster.
His commander looked down on the map and ran her fingers across the terrain described there. "Do you remember if there are any deep crevasses in this region", she asked him and pointed at an area in the area possessed by Djenga's armies.
"Not right there, but there is one here," he pointed at a spot not far from the area, she had indicated.
"How large is it?" She sat back her expression thoughtful.
He thought about what she could want to hide there. "It's large enough to hold most of the cavalry we have left," he answered guessing that his commander didn't want to put a couple battalions of foot soldiers in a crevasse, where they would only be able to slowly march out of later.
"Good, then I think we have a plan. First of all Chang I need you to pick some trusted officers amongst the footmen. Have them and their squads march out and do everything in their power to harass or find every single spy and scout that Djenga could have posted around here. Now if I know my dear counterpart, he'll take it as a signal that I am planning something. And I am, because while they're doing that I'll take the best parts of our cavalry and ride out one night to establish our camp in that crevasse. I'll leave you in command here," she explained.
"But won't Djenga get suspicious and send out spies to find our cavalry? And what about the soldiers that Wu has sent?" Fong asked.
"Well I am guessing but I am fairly sure that the lords of Suzhou could be convinced to replace the missing horses in our corrals to ensure that us leaving is less obvious, but I really need Djenga to find out about the arriving soldiers, because as soon as you can I want you to lead them in an open attack on Djenga. He is probably getting his orders to return now or he'll get them soon. So he won't be motivated for a big fight and will probably break camp heading out through the area he thinks he controls. You must force-march the men after him; maybe even send a regiment off towards his other escape routes, so that he'll go in the right direction. I don't care, how you do it, but you must be there, or the cavalry and I will be facing his army alone. This is all riding on timing here. If everything goes well, we'll shatter his army, while I'll try to give Djenga, what he screamed he wanted from me during our last skirmish, a fight woman to man," she outlined her plan to them.
Chang considered it for a moment and while he would've preferred to be at his commander's side, when she confronted the brutish general, she had decreed it otherwise and after months of seeing her plans more or less work, he found that he had nothing to add to it except a little question: "Wouldn't it be better if we sent more soldiers out to support you, then we could cut of the escape routes completely and destroy them?"
She looked at his as if he had grown another head and said: "Why? Do you feel a need to kill men that are just carrying out orders and following age old hatreds? We'll leave Djenga's men a way out over the mountains, a route that forces them to abandon their horses and thereby reducing their value in the war to nothing, while I try to make sure that their leader either dies or becomes our captive."
Chang nodded, while cursing himself in his thoughts for not realizing why his good hearted commander would choose to give her enemy an escape route. In the moment of war he had once again forgotten that red blood ran in the veins of his enemy as well and that to his commander neither skin color nor heritage meant that a man was not human and therefore not worthy of living. "I will have the best men I have out scouring the hills for spies immediately," he said and quickly left the tent only just hearing how the monk pledged to get the horses for their deception from the nobles within a day or two.
Chang sat on his immense warhorse Kai and looked out over the troops. They were sweating in the heat and grunting under the weight of their equipments, as they walked through the dust raised by those few horsemen riding in front of them. To the rhythm given by their sergeants the veteran and fresh forces sent by General Wu marched in the already hot morning only a few feet behind the dragon-backed footmen, who pressed on with seeming unrelenting strength driven by their loyalty to the commander.
Somewhere in front of them the enemy was doing the same not knowing that they had just entered the last stretch of valleys, before they came within the deadly reach of the Little Dragon and her well rested and prepared cavalry. Off to the North a regiment, that had been marched off during the day in front of the prying eyes of Djenga's spies, waited making any other escape route stupidity.
Only he knew where exactly the trap was set, but amongst the men there was a rising tension. They expected the big battle and were prepared for their mounted enemy, thousands of long spears' steel tips gleamed in the sun as they hastened their way towards a battle. "Are we on schedule?" He asked and looked to the monk that had ridden wordlessly at his side the entire day.
The monk squinted at the sun. "We're a bit early, but that will only make her attack even more crippling. Soon Djenga will stop to prepare to meet us or risk us attacking with out preparation and then it will too late for him to escape the Little Dragon," he asserted and fell silent again just as Chang spied one of his scouts riding towards their lines at high speed.
"Captain, the Mongols have stopped and are getting ready to meet us in the next valley," the scout said and sounded like he hoped that it would prevent a battle.
Chang looked at the man, only months from being just a boy and commanded: "Go north and tell Captain Lee to begin marching this way." The scout nodded and quickly rode off on his sweating horse, while Chang felt good that he had probably preserved the innocence of a boy that would go home and become a good farmer or craftsman instead of a warrior, just like he had observed his commander do time and again these last months.
"Prepare for battle!" He yelled and drew his sword symbolically. All around him the men began unsheathing weapons and adjusting their armor, before their sergeants began forming them into platoons and marched them in lockstep towards the waiting enemy.
Gabrielle took a sip from her waterskin and looked towards the entrance to the cramped crevasse in which she had managed to hide the remaining cavalry in her army. They had spent two days milling around the valleys going from hideout to hideout during the night until they had come here last night and pressed themselves into this hiding place. Now they awaited the arrival of the enemy that her pair of scouts reported was coming in the right direction.
Shun one of her scouts, walked into the valley and up to her. "Commander, the enemy entered the valley and is currently using the plain at the bottom to form up for combat. From the dust my guess is that the Captain is almost as the mouth of the valley with the army," he reported.
Gabrielle nodded and made some calculations in her head. "Listen up. It is time for us to go forth and end the invasion into our homeland. Today we'll take the first step towards peace and prosperity not only for you but for your families. We ride today for them and for victory." And she vaulted into Ghost saddle.
All around her the men scrambled into their saddles. She waited calmly the fire of her speech not having heated the blood in her veins like it had in the soldiers. The men began readied their weapons, preparing for the battle that would come.
"WE RIDE NOW!" Gabrielle yelled as soon as everyone looked ready and almost began thinking again. Four aside the almost 800 remaining cavalrymen and horses of her army charged out of the crevasse just as Djenga's men rode towards the footmen that had just come within their range.
As the bushes and trees gave way to grass and the small plain that lay at the bottom of the large valley Gabrielle saw, how the army of Djenga began tearing into the men lead by Chang and winced at the toll in dead and wounded soldier that charge had probably cost her army. Like the wind her fresh and prepared men rode through the supply wagon and men left behind by Djenga's army, Gabrielle knowing full well that those at the tail end of her column would busy themselves with destroying this just in case the battle went bad. She had ordered them to.
The four man column had spread into a long line of warrior, some grasping powerful bows or crossbows, while others brandished spears or even swords. Gabrielle had spent the entire time with her army enhancing their battle abilities and that in her mind included allowing them the use of the weapon they favored as long as they kept up their skills in the other required weapons and used them, when she wanted them to. She cocked her last green fletched arrow on her amazon bow, and while bracing herself in her stirrups, shot the first arrow towards the enemy that had just realized, what kind of trap this valley had turned into. She noted that it had hit and felt no joy as she saw her target tumble out of his saddle and hit the ground head first.
Gabrielle knew very well that she could allow herself no for pity these people. She had seen what they did to soldiers and innocents alike and there could be no doubts in a battle. She cast them away and reached to her side instead of down to her boots and drew her katana. All around her without her even noticing her horsemen nodded to one another. The Little Dragon was serious. This battle would not end with the enemy getting away.
Djenga screamed out his anger as he brought down his mace on the head of his enemy. His arms were also screaming but with fatigue. For almost ten minutes the battle had been fought. He had lost his mount to the spears of those gods be damned reinforcement that some devil had deigned to bequeath his enemy. His men called her a devil as well, claiming she was either that or a ghost. White skinned and mounted on a brute of the same color. Her weapons stealing the breath of life from any men they touched. They claimed her skin to be impenetrable to their weapons.
He didn't fear either her weapons or that his weapons might bounce of her skin. He hated her for her ability to defeat him. He hated that a woman existed that was capable of time and again outwitting and defeating him. He was the blood brother of Temudjin. He had been called the shadow of Green Dragon, so powerful was he supposed to be. Still he had lost first the bulk of his army and now probably the rest as well. This devil woman had left his men with only one way out. A way that lead over a mountain not scalable on the back of a horse, a way out that would shatter his men across the entire region and make them worthless. Behind him somewhere their supplies were surely burning, if the smell of smoke was any indication.
It would all have been acceptable, if that damnable woman would just die at his hands, but he had never been able to do more than threaten her from a far and so his men thought that he feared her as well.
Then as his eyes swept around the battle that raged unabated around him and he hollered out another order for his outnumbered men to rally, he saw her. She rode towards him sitting atop her tall white mount, holding the thin steel blade that had killed and wounded so many, low to allow her to strike at anyone nearing her unarmored legs. He saw, how she yelled out a command in the tongue of those bastards that he had come here to punish for their crimes against his people. Her eyes met his and they widened in recognition. She spurred on her horse barreling towards him. He took hold best he could of his horseman's mace and remembered his lessons on how to avoid being trampled.
Gabrielle saw Djenga standing in the middle of the carnage. Around him several of her men lay dead or wounded. He looked as sweaty and weary, as she felt. It felt to her like everything became quiet and faded into a background of noise. Her eyes met his and she recognized the challenge apparent in them. She spurred Ghost on hoping that her scarred and equally weary warhorse would hold up for the remainder of the battle.
Gabrielle swung her right over to the left and leapt of Ghost's saddle landing with an uncomfortable jar. Ghost danced away from her and continued on probably leaving the battlefield soon, while trampling several wounded from both sides. Gabrielle knew she would be able to find her later and so focused on her enemy instead.
Feeling gracious Djenga allowed the small woman to leap off her horse and waited; until she would be ready meet him. It wouldn't impress his men, if he killed the wench by attacking her from behind like a coward. He knew that if he slaughtered her, the tide of this battle could turn in his favor. At least his blood brother would thank him for killing one of their enemy's best commanders. Quicker than he had expected of the small woman, who close up looked like even less of a challenge than from atop her horse, she turned to face him.
Gabrielle turned around and took hold of her blade preparing for combat. Her weapon was light not intended to parry the heavy metal mace that the Mongolian general wielded and she knew better than to try to turn aside such weapons even with her Sai. This would have to be done with speed and finesse instead of force. She liked fighting that way the best anyhow.
Gabrielle focused her mind on the sounds around her. She forced her mind into the trance state that she achieved so easily as breathing now. Every sound around her took on a whole other meaning as she was subjected to the barrage prevailing on the battle. It threatened to overwhelm her for a moment, but she called up the calm and surety of purpose that the teachings and meditations of the monks had given her. She expanded her focus to include even her eyes seeing every subtle breath and tension going through the heavily muscled body of her enemy. It was uncanny almost like reading the mind of her enemy.
He couldn't decide what that damnable woman was up to. She had turned towards him. She had hefted her exotic sword that he would give as a gift to his daughter, when he got home. But now she just stood there like she was rooted on the spot. Bellowing out a vicious warcry he charged towards her.
Gabrielle knew he was coming before he took a step forward. She overrode the instinct of her body and mind to flee the attack or flinch at the warcry.
Djenga ran toward her. His mace held ready for a vicious strike meant for her head.
She commanded her muscles already tense like springs to be ready for instant movement. She moved her weight forward. She was ready to spring into action anytime. Still she waited.
Djenga felt his moment of triumph come. The woman stood rooted to the spot like frightened prey in front of the charging tiger. He was almost in reach and drew his mace back to strike.
Gabrielle saw her moment. She sprinted forward and slightly to the left. The katana with the blade held backwards flashed in a tight curve from her low right across to end up as a high left as she passed her enemy at high speed. She felt something tuck hard against her muscles as her weapon impacted with her enemy.
After spending a mere moment to sense, if she had gotten by unharmed, Gabrielle spun about, her katana turned to be ready for a downward blow from the left. But what she saw made her lower her blood dripping weapon.
Djenga felt a sharp pain in his right arm then suddenly felt dizzy, as the woman seemingly passed him in a blur of blue and steel. He began feeling lighter and looked to his right to discover that his forearm and the hand holding his mace had been replaced with air and the regular spurting of blood from just above his elbow. His mouth fell open in surprise and he fainted in shock.
A murmur seemed to go through Djenga's army as the word of his fall spread faster than any fire could have. The already defeated army shattered and broke into chaos. Leaders bellowed commands and were ignored by the few unwounded survivors as they broke into a dead run for the hills. Too late, in Gabrielle's estimation, was her command to let them flee followed by her vengeful troops and for a few minutes most of the wounded and many of the fleeing enemies were slaughtered without mercy. She didn't have time to cry for them, but she swore to do that later, as she bent down and made a life saving compress on the remaining stump of Djenga's arm. He could an important man to interrogate, if he survived his wound and the enemies now surrounding him.
Gabrielle wandered through the camp and marveled at the sudden happiness, she felt radiating not only from her men, but also from the people that had come out of Suzhou just to greet them and their happy news. The threat to this part of the Empire had been banished and for some reason everyone wanted to place the credit for that at her feet. As if she hadn't relied on the effective scouts Chang had trained, as if luck and timing had nothing to do with it. But she also knew that protesting this had no point. These people saw her as their hero and she let them, because she felt that it made them happy. It was okay, at least as long as she didn't begin believing it.
Gabrielle stepped into her huge tent, a gift from a local merchant. To her great joy Mai, her maid that had followed her from the palace of the Emperor to care for her here in the midst of war giving no reason for that decision but a meek smile, had prepared a warm bath for her. "Thank you, Mai. Where would I be if you didn't take care of me?" Gabrielle asked and dropped her dirty clothes and weapons in a great pile. She would take care of them later. With a sigh she sat her naked body down into the warm water and relaxed for the first time since she had ridden out to trap Djenga.
"May I massage you?" Mai, who always was unwaveringly polite and deferential, asked.
"Sure if you want to," Gabrielle replied and fell silent as Mai tried to unknot her muscles. She thought of the slow trip home from the makeshift camp and hospital they had set up after the final defeat of Djenga and his army. Djenga himself now rested in a well guarded healer's tent not far from here, having been brought here on a rickety cart as she had returned with the main part of her army. She had let the Captain of the reinforcements stay in command up at the hospital and let him keep a regiment to guard the wounded until they were ready to return here.
A few days later Gabrielle looked up from her reading as a guest entered her tent. The healer, she had assigned to care for Djenga, had come to visit. "His condition is good enough to allow both travel and questioning. However be careful, while he has lost his arm, he is belligerent, so much in fact that I had order him chain and manacled to his bed," the healer reported.
"Thank you, I'll have more men posted. When you're rested, you could go back to care for our men again, if you feel like it," Gabrielle suggested to which the healer nodded gravely and disappeared back outside the tent. Gabrielle rose and went the same way after ensuring that her weapons were in their places.
Gabrielle heard the angry yells of the captive General a long time before she could even see the tent in which he was kept. Gabrielle saw the ten attentive guards that Chang had seen fit to surround the tent with stand around seemingly debating if their orders prohibited them from gagging the irritating prisoner, who was screaming curses in differing languages.
Gabrielle stepped up before the entrance to the tent. "I'll interrogate the prisoner now. No one may enter no matter who they are," she ordered and walked inside.
Chang, who had his tent not far from where the enemy General was kept, noticed how the man, who had been yelling all morning suddenly, fell silent. Fearing suicide or intervention from his own men he hurried to the tent, but was met with the spears of men he thought loyal to him and the commander. "What is going on here? Why has the prisoner gone silent? He could be trying to speed himself into the next world, so let me pass," he ordered, but was ignored.
The spears didn't move, but the man he had put in charge, answered: "We don't know what is going on. The Little Dragon has ordered us to keep anyone from entering, while she interrogates the prisoner."
Chang nodded. That the Little Dragon has some secret interrogation method was no secret. Sometimes in the past when they had caught an important or particularly uncooperative prisoner, she had demanded to be left alone with them and would then return less than a minute later with all the knowledge that she needed. He had never found any traces of whatever method she used except that the prisoners were often unconscious and having nosebleeds, after she had dealt with them. He had asked one of them once what she had done to him, but the man had only babbled something about fingers of death and pain in his bad Chinese. Chang decided to wait for whatever his commander would learn instead of speculating on how she did it.
Gabrielle asked her final question as Djenga struggled to remain alive. His manacles rattling as he attempted to writhe in pain, but his paralyzed body stopping him: "What is Temudjin seeking in Chin?" Her internal countdown gave him only 10 or less seconds to live.
After choking for a few seconds Djenga answered in a pained voice, blood flowing from both his nose and his wound: "He is seeking to capture the divine. He wants the blood of one of the heavenly Dragon. His witch Jenn has promised him that with the power in it, he can subjugate Chin and avenge the defeat of his father at the hand of the Emperor." Gabrielle quickly undid the Pinch, but decided not to knock the man unconscious unsure if he would survive more damage. Puzzled she turned around and left the tent again. Chang awaited her outside; she had recognized his voice earlier.
Gabrielle sat in her chair and thought, while Fong sat and scribbled in another of his journals for the Emperor. She had told neither Fong nor Chang about what she had learned of Temudjin's motive for this war even if she had shared everything else. She remembered her battles with the Roman Governor of Egypt in the past and this scheme sounded akin to that. Maybe fights such this could be apart of her destiny just like stopping Ares had been apart of Xena's.
One of her guards peeked inside. "Ma'am there is a man claiming to be an Imperial messenger outside. He demands to see you personally instead of going through Chang as per your command," he explained.
"Send him in," she said and looked at Fong, who just like her seemed to rattle himself out of his thoughts, as he whispered: "Finally, it took them long enough."
The older silk clad man walked into the tent with all the majesty and self-importance of a high level bureaucrat and stopped before her with an expression like he expected her to be impressed by or thankful for his arrival.
"Yes," she asked in a low voice not liking the arrogant expression of the man as his eyes wandered across her body, leaving her with the same feeling she got in most inns when drunkards ogled her body.
"I'm been sent by his divine majesty to convey to you Warrior Bard his contentedness with your most fortunate defeat of an enemy of the Empire and commands you to present yourself on the fields of battle in the North, where you'll serve under the illustrious General Wu himself," he explained to her. Gabrielle got the feeling that this man would probably get himself killed within the first hour she spent in the company of any amazon. He took out two scrolls and reached forth to deposit them in her lap, when he suddenly found a sword at his neck.
Chang, who had entered just behind the pompous bureaucrat, held his sword against the back of his neck. "Make one more wrong or disrespectful move toward the Little Dragon and I'll tell the Emperor that you met an unfortunate accident at the hands of some wandering Mongol warrior. Now give those scrolls to the honorable monk over there and leave," he commanded like the old man was a disgusting creature instead of an important dignitary. Sweating profusely the man deposited the scroll into the hands of a gently smiling Master Fong and slowly edged his way out of the tent. Chang's sword never left its position at the back of his neck.
"That wasn't very nice," Gabrielle commented, while Fong quickly broke the seals of the two scrolls and read them.
"Neither was he. Besides you looked about ready to say or do anything," Chang commented and smiled any hint of his anger disappearing.
"It would seem that he was saying something correctly. While a whole lot more politely phrased the Emperor does command you to leave the army behind and come join the one that Wu is assembling to go meet Temudjin. A ship should be waiting in the harbor to take you as we speak. But there is more good news. As thank you for services rendered he has given you an official seal and ordered the formal formation of your very own noble house. Of course you're the only member, but then again you're already noble so that won't matter much to you. The other scroll is from Wu. It is much more sober. He has promoted you to full General and wants you to take control of a large part of the army in the coming battles," Fong explained and handed the scrolls one after another to his friend.
Gabrielle understood well after her time here that the Emperor was granting her great honor, but she didn't need anymore of that. She decided that she would at the first given opportunity make sure that Chang got the seal and title of nobility instead of her.
"So it seems we're heading onto another battlefield," Chang commented and smiled to his commander.
"No, we aren't," Gabrielle commented after reading the second scroll. "Wu has ordered me to place you in charge here as the new commander of all the footmen. He wants you to make sure that the stragglers from Djenga's army don't cause trouble around here, and then continue a sweep heading west making the countryside and trade road a safe place again. The cavalry is supposed to head north and meet up with me as soon as possible, but that is all," she explained. Chang actually hung his head even if he had just been promoted. Behind her Gabrielle heard Mai begin packing gifts and possessions into bags and chest in preparations for their trip.
Gabrielle watched Mai and Fong walk onto the ship, while she stood besides Chang. "I guess this is farewell," she commented.
"Yeah, you'll probably head towards your next adventure, when this is over. We'll probably never meet again," Chang said and regarded at her.
"Anything could happen. But you're right, maybe after a short vacation at the nearest thing I have to a home, I'll go out looking for trouble again," Gabrielle admitted. She wanted to take a short breather with amazons before deciding anything like that. I had been too long since she had seen the welcome faces of her sisters anyhow.
"You know you're the best commander and teacher on how to live a good life that I've ever met… I'll miss you Little Dragon," Chang suddenly said and drew her into a warm hug. When the powerfully built Captain let go again, she would've sworn, he had misty eyes.
With a nose wrinkling smile she walked up the plank onto the gentle bobbing ship, when she heard Chang ask himself: "I never got her real name."
Gabrielle turned, smiled and just said: "Gabrielle of Poteidaia," before she disappeared out of his view.
Chang stood on the quay until long after the ship had left the harbor. His eyes staring after it as he tried to burn the memory of the living legend he had known into his mind. When he left he knew that he would never forget her until the day he died."
Thunder rolled outside the fortress walls as he strode into the halls decorated with the weapons and banners of his conquered. He threw the wet cloak, that had barely kept him out of the weather, across the end of the table that his men had recovered from the upper floors of this place, after they had decided that this place would be his headquarter for the duration of their stay in the land of their enemy. Temudjin sat down on the bench besides the table and cut himself a slab of meat from the still steaming roast sitting there. He was very well aware that several of his generals and their toadies were loitering around in the hall, their baleful eyes glaring at his back always triggered that itch on his back right where they would like to place the dagger.
Finally after being ignored longer than his patience could withstand one of his general rose and walked towards him. Fortunately for him he had been moderately successful in his conquests and so Temudjin contemplated only humiliating him, instead of killing him outright for the words, he was about to be addressed with.
"Temudjin, the tribes decided that you were allowed to lead the assault on these lands, because it was expedient not because you were to be given the absolute rule over our destiny. Your foolish wanderings across these lands chasing the visions of that hag, you claim is a witch, has cost us too much already. If we had struck Chang'an as I suggested, we would be on our way home to our lands to prepare for winter. Instead we're gathering here for a battle we barely have a chance of winning. I…" His words died as a long curved dagger seemed to suddenly sprout from his throat.
Temudjin rose and turned. He politely nodded at the Arabic leader of his bodyguard, one of the carefully handpicked mercenaries, which he paid handsomely to guard his back, while the mercenary carefully cleaned his blade. Of course he didn't trust them but that was beside the point. "I agree. My quest seems to have let you fools waste the men, horses and weapons you were given in trust by the tribes. I haven't lost a battle in my time in this forsaken country, while the rest of you including this piece of trash." Temudjin tapped the corpse of his former general with his foot. "You managed to cavort around the Empire of Chin like you expected the enemy to just let you burn and pillage indiscriminately. Now they want blood to repay the debt you have incurred. You ask me, why we're gathering here. We are here to ensure that our homeland won't be forced to pay the price for your mistakes. We must stand against our enemy on the field of battle here and defeat him. If not he'll invade our lands, kill our wives and plunder our riches. We must meet him now or after the next winter. It will happen. I say it should happen here. Let the burden of this war remain on the lands of Chin instead of the free lands of steppe."
Temudjin looked around the room on his suddenly less baleful generals and officers. He pointed to one of the now dead generals followers. "You may take his army, if you can command respect of them," he offered and turned back to his meal after grabbing a pitcher of ale and poured himself a large mug. "Leave me," he commanded and drank, then listened to how everyone slowly left the hall.
He was enjoying another mug as a dry, wet and winded man stumbled into his hall. "I've asked to be left alone," Temudjin said in a low tone before even looking.
"Yes, Green Dragon, I've been told. But I have an urgent message and I was sure that you would be more angry, if I had waited until this morning to give it to you," the warrior explained. As far as he could judge from his markings the warrior was from his blood brother's army.
"So you tell me. Has Djenga decided to ignore my orders again or is he late and sent you to apologize? What?" Temudjin rose with a thin smile playing across his lips, while thinking of his tempestuous friend. They had known each other, since they had first learned to ride and fight from his father. Djenga was one of the few men; he had given free reins during this invasion. He trusted his warrior abilities almost as he did his own. Lately news from Djenga had been brief almost as if he was hiding something and there had been no reply yet to his order for Djenga to withdraw from the South either.
The man, his shabby uniform bearing the insignia of a captain, seemed uncomfortable for a moment, then spoke: "No, Green Dragon, Djenga did not ignore your orders, but his opponent outwitted him like she has done time and again."
Temudjin felt his blood run cold, while voices in his head screamed for him to draw his sword and smash things and people to kibble and bits, but he controlled his temper and instead asked: "I'm afraid much of the correspondence from my blood brother about his battles to the south has never reached me. How about you start by telling me, who this enemy is and then work your way around to telling me about what happened to my blood brother?"
"Yes, Green Dragon," the man wisely answered. "It all began after your blood brother destroyed the pathetic army put in his way by the Chinese mongrels. He went east seeking to take control of a coastal city hoping for a great load in loot and supplies. We had heard rumors of small regiments of cavalry and footmen guarding the coastal town, but we thought nothing of it, having just shattered an army thousands of men larger than ours. We were traveling, when we heard a single peal of thunder nearby. The general was worried, it might be the work of an unseen enemy and as we were only a short ride along a river bed away from an open plain, he took his regiments of cavalry through first. The rest of the army following behind us so that we might defeat any traps set up by any unseen enemy. But we had underestimated the scope and abilities of the enemy or rather the ruthlessness of the enemy commander. Somehow she managed to burst the dams of many rain swelled dams further up stream at precisely the right time to envelop the entire army in a flash flood, which destroyed almost three quarters of the entire army and then when we rode into the hills to escape the water, we rode right into hundreds of men with bows, spears as well as roads patrolled by her riders. We lost a great number of good men to the mongrels that day and in the months that followed." The captain gulped and awaited any reaction by him.
"Go on," he suggested gruffly, while his mind raced with the thoughts of the appearance of this unknown player on a board, he had been so sure was set up to ensure his victory.
He nodded and swallowed what was probably a lump of fear in his throat. While Temudjin despised such behavior, he had gotten used to it both from own his men and enemy soldiers. "As I said the months that followed was no better. While we did occasionally score small victories against our numerically inferior opponents and our spies easily walked even into their central camp, it didn't matter. No assassination attempt even got past her guards. And worse she didn't share plans with anyone she couldn't trust. In the end the general managed almost to defeat her, when she rode out to fight a decoy force and we fell on Suzhou like locusts in search of food, which we almost were at that point. But again we were tricked. That devil woman had left behind exact plans for the defense of the city and soon her army was attacking us from behind as well. In the end we were driven back and left with only twice the number of her army in men and were no closer to conquering the city. Even worse the woman was becoming legend even amongst our men. She outfought anyone, she came up against. She was like a fiend on her white horse easily the equal of the general. Her weapons were exotic even as she was. Her pale white skin made the men think she was a spirit from the beyond sent to defeat us. And I must admit I almost agree with them. I saw with my own yes, how a great archer shot an arrow into her back in a place that should have killed her on the spot, but she fought on like nothing had happened," he reported.
Now Temudjin felt intrigued. The woman sounded like a wondrous creature and could possibly be that challenge that he had wished the so-called Great General would have been. Instead he had only shined with his absence.
"In the end Djenga bowed to your wish to withdraw and did so only with great shame. Still he was careful and when our spies near that demon woman's camp started disappearing suddenly, we sent more only to discover that she had gotten reinforcements. Now we faced not a numerically inferior enemy, but a well supplied and fresh force of veteran Imperial footmen, bolstering the fanatics that already followed that woman. We immediately took, what we thought, was the safest path back through the lands we held. Then we learned that their army had marched out to hunt us down, but it was only the footmen, the cavalry seemingly being kept in reserve. We gloried, as we thought our enemy had finally made a move out of arrogance. We were wrong. They were following a carefully timed plan and we should have known, when the other possible escape route to the one we had chosen, was found to be guarded by another regiment of footmen that the enemy had marched off before going after us. Still against the footmen we had a chance of winning and so we stopped our withdrawal to destroy the mongrels and regain some honor," the warrior paused to draw breath.
Temudjin thought that he saw emotions of anger and remorse play across the man's face for a few moments.
"We charged our enemy, when suddenly seemingly springing from forests that our scouts had reported to be safe, the woman and her cavalry comes upon us from behind. Any slim chance of victory we had turned to dust as they ground us between their spears and horses. The general himself brave as he was, walked into combat, challenging the devil herself to single combat. He lost. I fled with the men taking the only route they had left us, which took us through mountains impassable for horses forcing us to give up the last things that remained ours. I came here as fast as I could to report this disaster to you and to tell you that your blood brother is now in the hands of the enemy." The man bowed, relief showing in his eyes as he began to notice that Temudjin didn't seem about to cut his head off.
"This woman, what is her name?" He asked.
"It is a mystery. To the Empire she is know as the Warrior Bard, but all who fight with her call her Little Dragon for the mark of a dragon that covers her entire back. She has never given her true name to anyone as far as I know," the weary captain explained while still bowing.
"Describe her to me," he commanded.
"Her skin is white, her hair is short and the color of gold and her eyes are green. She bears the mark of a green dragon on her back. She is only a little taller than a colt, but her body has the muscles of a seasoned warrior. I know not her age, but she looked like she had seen many full seasons of life, but her beauty clearly proved her to not having passed her prime yet," the captain described the woman from memory.
"Thank you for coming here. I am glad you ignored my moods to tell this. Consider yourself promoted. There is an army out there, whose leadership is in dispute. Here take this." Temudjin handed him a small scroll he had just scribbled. "And give it to my bodyguard on your way out. He'll make sure you'll get what you deserve," Temudjin explained and dismissed the man with a wave. He walked quickly towards the door that led to a stairway. An unpleasant meeting awaited him.
Temudjin composed himself, before knocking on the thick wooden door. "Yes!" An irritated woman's voice answered from inside. While he needed the owner of that voice, he wasn't about to let her boss him around. Temudjin almost ripped the door of the hinges and strode inside.
"I have news witch," he said and stopped before the low table in the musty room hung full of rotting animal carcasses and uncured hides. A small woman sat there, he knew very well that while she looked like a woman a little past her prime and was clad in the same clothes that any proper woman would wear. She was by far not one. She was a shamaness, she knew the past, present and future. Her visions had named him as her master. Her visions had allowed him to conquer the Great Wall. And her vision had started him on his quest to power.
"Tell me already Temudjin," Jenn asked and reached for her bag of bones and a cup of blood from a horse.
"A new enemy has come. A warrior woman was capable of outwitting and outfighting my blood brother like he was a common warrior. You swore to me that this game was already played out. You swore that this invasion would ensure me the throne both here and amongst the tribes. Did you lie to me, witch?" He asked, while his eyes narrowed. He knew better than to try false bravado on this woman. He meant it. If she didn't explain this new development, he would kill her and find another shaman that would ensure his success.
She reached down into her bag, grabbed a handful of bones and tossed across the blood caked wooden table. She stared at them for a while then spoke: "This woman is a no consequence to your success. She will oppose you and she is dangerous. But she is guided by a heart full of mercy and hope. If you use that against her, you'll be able to defeat her. But understand this, my dear Temudjin, the Little Dragon that is coming for us is no one to be taken lightly. If we misstep just once, she will defeat us. Your path to the throne is as I have told you many times still in your grasp. If you fulfill the prophecy and consume the lifeblood of one of the heavenly dragons you will become invincible in combat, your skin impenetrable to the weapons of mortals and your life will extend into infinity."
He nodded with satisfaction and turned to leave not wanting to spend too much time in the company of this woman lest her nature was contagious.
"Temudjin, was she by any chance accompanied by a black haired warrior woman?" His shamaness asked a tinge of never before heard anxiety in her voice.
"I wasn't told of anyone. Why?" He asked, while holding the door open, enjoying the fresh air that suddenly flowed towards him.
"Oh, just another prophecy, but if there was none… It will happen some other time. Maybe in my next life," the witch mused and turned her eyes back down on the seemingly random scattered bones lying all over the table.
"Right," Temudjin said tersely and left.
Jenn looked over the bones once again and shook her head. "Beware the black haired woman warrior, she is the mother of your undoing," she said to herself. "Why does that one always appear these days? There are no black haired women involved in this," she thought and picked up the bones she had cast.
Gabrielle felt like every inch of her body was aching. She was bone tired and had every right to be. She rode down the dusty road all the while hoping that Sun wouldn't insist on sparring the next day. The General had completely changed his attitude towards her ever since he had recalled her from the south to help him arrange the defeat of Temudjin. Every morning he asked her to either join him in sword practice or playing chess, a game Gabrielle hadn't even known, before he introduced her to it. She had gotten quite good, but she hoped that he would grant her a reprieve from both playing and sparring tomorrow. By her judgment she and her regiment of cavalry wouldn't make it back to the main camp until well after Helios' chariot had been stabled, and she was already tired from days of combat.
Sun Wu not only used her council in his planning, he also depended on her to go out and take on small armies and patrols, that Temudjin sent out, picking off his troops and so further insuring that they even more massively outnumbered the enemy. Soon the cautious general would march out and meet the collected armies of Temudjin, but in the meantime he wielded her and her tactical gifts like a weapon against the enemy.
Almost every week these last four months she had been asked to take some detachment of cavalry or footmen out to fight a battle or take on some other mission, as the successful general she had become. General, a title she now also carried on top of all the other ridiculous titles that she could plaster behind her name. A name she had only told three people amongst her allies.
"Little Dragon, the scouts have spotted a small patrol of enemy soldier camping atop the next hill. If we follow this road we'll be riding into their view in just a few minutes," one of the lieutenants, that had been with her since Suzhou, reported.
"Halt!" She commanded the entire column of riders. "How many are they?" She asked him.
"We don't know, but it seems that they have come from afar, because they have several pack horses with them," he said.
"Alright take the men back to camp taking a route out of their sight. We should avoid any confrontation as tired as we are. I'll ride up and take a look at them myself. I'll rejoin you later," she explained and rode into the bushes. The lieutenant nodded to himself and began distributing her orders.
Gabrielle smelled a campfire long before she was even within sight of the camp of the enemy soldiers. They had made camp on a hill covered in trees, which still offered them a good view of the roads in the area. Gabrielle wondered, what their presence here signified as Temudjin's army was placed south of here, and this area was neither useful for ferrying his army through in a sneak attack due to the terrain nor was it important to their war effort and thus a target to be conquered.
She dismounted Ghost and tied her exhausted steed to a nearby tree. She stripped off her armor and hid both it and her katana in the bushes, before slowly stalking her way up the undergrowth towards the camp from which she smelled cooking.
She peeked out between the branches of a bush. The camp was set up typically for her enemy with both their tents and horses guarded by separate standing watchmen in turn. On a central fire a large pot of stew boiled around which the men were just sitting down. They would be eating soon. Gabrielle quickly counted them. There were around twenty men in total. Way more than she could have safely handled, even if she hadn't been bone tired and already covered in small scratches earned in the battle, she had led this morning.
She had almost resigned herself to withdrawing, when she noticed the weed growing on the ground around her and flashed back to memories of old. Memories of her conducting a choir of stone and of Joxer triumphantly defeating an army without using a weapon flashed in her mind. With an impish smile she quickly plucked a couple of the weed's leaves and dug out a few roots, which she then after withdrawing mashed into a wet ball of plant matter making sure not to smell the vapors of the vile mix. Gabrielle picked up a few large stones and deposited them together with the ball of Henbane into the pockets of her already torn green silk pantsuit.
As quietly as possible, she climbed into the trees surrounding the camp and like a white and green shadow made her way within throwing distance of the pot of stew. She drew out the two stones. She took careful aim then threw them as hard as she could. Gabrielle launched her two distractions off into the distance hoping that it would draw off the men. Two great cracks echoed into the camp, causing her to smile. The men launched to their feet and many went off to search the woods for any enemies sneaking up on them. No one noticed an ingredient being added to the boiling stew as Gabrielle with a gentle drop deposited the Henbane into the pot and crawled back into the top of the trees to await the result of her handiwork.
Gabrielle dropped to the ground and surveyed the camp. The two guards had ridden off a few moments ago, probably running off in fear or going for help depending on how disciplined they were. All around her people were sleeping, hallucinating like she had or suffering from convulsions. Taking no pride in the results she carefully examined those struck the hardest from her poison and after making sure that they would all wake up alive, she grabbed one of the men still conscious but not quite lucid. After tying him up and throwing him across one of their horses she walked off with her raving prisoner. She would interrogate him later, probably when he stopped trying to make up his own language.
"Oh, my head," her prisoner complained, before he realized that he was strapped across a saddle, his hands and feet tied together below the belly of his horse. "What in the name of…" The man grumbled.
Gabrielle interrupted him: "You're my prisoner. Now feel free to cry out, we're only a few miles from the main camp of the Imperial army, so no one around here cares."
"Who are you?" He asked after tossing his head over to look in her direction with a pained wince. Gabrielle figured he had a headache.
"I'm called the Little Dragon, but if you feel up to asking questions, you won't mind me asking you some," she said and climbed down from her by now completely worn out steed.
"L-Little Dragon," he stammered, the look in his eyes revealing, that what ever fearsome reputation she had in their army, had reached his ears.
Gabrielle stepped up and after a little confusion over how to apply the pinch from the angle she was standing in, made two precise stabs to the blood vessels on his neck.
"I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you have 30 seconds left to live," she explained in a tired following the routine that Xena had established long ago.
"What do you want to know?" The man asked without offering resistance.
"What were you guys scouting for?" She asked.
"We were ensuring that the back roads up there were passable for a heavy cargo," the soldier answered in a strained voice muted slightly because he was talking into his saddle.
"What cargo?" Gabrielle pressed.
"No one knows. Temudjin and his witch are very excited about it. One of his bodyguards told a friend of mine that he expects, it will allow us to crush your armies," he explained readily.
Gabrielle was happy to have caught such an easy prisoner. "When and from where is that cargo coming?" She asked.
"It will arrive four days from now. It comes from the extreme North West of Chin. The areas we still rule," he said and began having convulsions.
Gabrielle quickly undid the pinch, but left her prisoner conscious and tied to the horse. "Could it be the dragon Djenga mentioned," she mused and mounted Ghost. She decided to postpone dealing with that issue until she had gotten food in her belly, a warm bath and a good night's sleep in her warm tent that awaited her only a mile or so up the wide trampled dirt road.
The morning was cold and Gabrielle had a throbbing headache even as she climbed out of the warm furs that were piled high in her bed.
After finishing her visit to the chamber pot she put on another fresh silk suit laid out by her attentive maid, while she had been dropping into her bed.
"Little Dragon," Mai greeted her as she finally came out into the main area of her tents, where her maid awaited her washed and dressed mistress with a large breakfast.
"You know my habits, huh," Gabrielle said with a smile as she noticed that the late breakfast had apparently been made recently.
"Of course, I've been keeping your tent for over a year now. I'd be a fool, if I didn't know by now Gabrielle," her maid said with a smile and walked off probably to air out her furs or something. She had told Mai all about her life on their trip from Suzhou to Chang'an some months ago. Since then the tone between them had gotten more familiar even if the shy maid still kept her distance.
"I might go soft, having a maid to take care of me," Gabrielle mused.
"No chance of that I think," the voice of her commander said as Sun Wu the Grand General of Chin's armies stepped into her tent wearing a bright smile.
"Hi Sun," she said between bites of warm bread and tender meat.
"That was quite dangerous, going out on your own just to capture a prisoner, we didn't really need," he admonished her standing besides her breakfast. He grabbed a piece of chicken to eat.
"Yeah, well if I hadn't done it, some of our spies would've had to do it later on. Besides I got some very important news from him," Gabrielle explained and took a breath. "Temudjin is getting something very heavy delivered from the North West. I think his men have captured a celestial dragon just like Djenga told me during his interrogation," she said.
"A dragon, come on, Little Dragon. Don't believe in foolish myths and tales. I have lived for nearly 30 years and I've yet to see anything that couldn't be explained as a natural phenomenon. Don't come to me with old wives tales of Dragons, Gods and the like. I am convinced any kind of religion is just a bad excuse for the shortcomings and fears of humanity," Sun said and took a large bite out of the chicken wing.
"Now you're being foolish Sun. I've known, befriended and fought Gods, their schemes and their beings for long periods of my life. I have experienced and used the great shamanic arts of the Amazons that can bring the spirits of the dead back. I have died and been brought back to life by the powers of a god. I've been both an angel and a demon." Gabrielle rose with the emerald fires in her eyes.
"If Temudjin completes this ceremony he will most likely become invincible in combat and he will then lead his men to victory against us. We must free that dragon," she demanded.
"No. I won't waste resources on something futile like that. No one man wins a war, Little Dragon. Armies and their commanders win them together. No matter of singular fighting strength can change to outcome of a large enough battle," Sun said and his eyes revealed his iron belief in the truth of this.
"X… I… I had a friend, who defeated entire armies single handedly. I know that I've been the key component in many a victory in our war here. Don't tell me a single person won't make a difference. If Temudjin is allowed to through with this, he will defeat us. Call it instinct or woman's intuition, but I just know it. Let me at least lead my cavalry out to capture whatever it is he's transporting. Call it a weapon in your mind, or think of it as a strategically important item, just let me do it," she pleaded.
"No, General. You are needed here. Your cavalry are part of my plan. Your men under your command are the best unit I have. I need you here. Especially now," he said and his expression changed slightly all emotions seemingly leaving his face.
Gabrielle looked at him for a moment then said: "It is time then. When and where are we meeting them?" She heard the subtle footsteps of Master Fong coming from his end of her tents. They stopped just short of the separating cloth.
"All the attacks I've had you and some of the others making were meant to goad Temudjin and his generals into taking to the field of battle I've chosen. They are walking out to meet us there as we speak. We will tarry here for awhile, as if we don't know, then in three days we will take hurried march veering of to the south west, where a terrain that we are prepared to fight in awaits. Can I expect you to lead your men in battle for Chin?" He asked.
Gabrielle nodded silently, while keeping her fingers crossed out of his sight. "My men will be apart of the first charge," she swore.
"Good. Put all thoughts of dragons and magic out of your mind for now, Little Dragon. We have a battle to prepare," he said and left her tent.
"So are you going to do as he asks?" Master Fong asked as he entered the main area.
Gabrielle considered the aged man, who over the course of the time she had known him had grown slowly weaker. Age was winning over her friend, but neither of them cared to mourn the passing of time knowing that there would be another life after this one. "Nope," she said and drank a large gulp of milk to finish off her breakfast.
"Don't you think he'll notice if your cavalry doesn't follow him into battle," Fong asked and sat down in one of the free chairs.
"Oh, the cavalry is going and it will even look like I am there as well," Gabrielle explained.
"Really and how are you going to arrange that," Fong asked with undisguised curiosity.
"I've been carefully delegating battle responsibility these last few months. Unless anything critical happens they don't need me to lead them. The officers will be enough," Gabrielle explained.
"Still it is kind of hard to miss you on the battle field. That blonde head of hair, your weapons and until recently your clothes sets you apart," Fong said and crooked a white eyebrow.
"I've been using a helmet a lot recently. Head wounds are kind of deadly, you know. As for my replacement, Mai, could you join us in here for a moment," Gabrielle yelled.
"Oh and you'll have be there to protect her of course," Gabrielle said to her astonished looking friend."
"Take good care of her," Gabrielle said and patted the side of Ghost. In her ornate saddle clothed in a green silk pantsuit and wearing one of a reserve armors and helmets a nervous Mai fidgeted.
"Who do you mean Mai or Ghost?" Fong asked with a gentle smile, wearing an armor, helmet and sword for the first time in all the seasons she had known him.
"Both actually," Gabrielle explained.
Trumpets blared over the camp. "It would seem that we're about to leave," Gabrielle explained and jumped onto the back of a spotted warhorse she had borrowed from the corrals. She was dressed in regular soldiers clothing, armor, wearing a Chinese sword and a helmet to cover her identity.
On her borrowed steed here and there you could, if you tried, spot the telltale signs of a rather substantial armory as Gabrielle's real clothing, armor and weapons lay hidden there. The column of her regiment followed the commands relayed to them by her first lieutenant, who had been told that Gabrielle's concealment as a regular soldier was to hide her from hordes of assassins dispatched by Temudjin to kill her before the battle was joined.
Gabrielle rode besides Fong out of the camp that the non combatants were already breaking down. She planned to follow along for a while and then disappear on a bend down the road somewhere.
"So our paths diverge here," Fong said in Greek and looked at her.
"Yeah, I've got to go and free that dragon. I know what Temudjin is planning to do. I've seen what happens with mortals that get their hands on the power of immortals before. We aren't meant to have that kind of power my friend. I've always known that," Gabrielle explained.
"What about the men that might die, because you're not here to lead them?" Fong asked obviously trying to keep any recrimination out of his voice.
Gabrielle looked at him for a moment. His voice had slipped into the tone, he always used, when he was trying to tell or teach her something. "It is for the greater good, my friend. More will die, if I don't succeed," she said and spied the best place for her to ride off coming up in the distance.
"Yes, the greater good. It rules your life," he said and looked off into the distance, contemplating what she had answered.
"Are you trying to redefine my path now," Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up in surprise.
Master Fong looked at her with a beatific smile on his lips, but said nothing.
"We are close to finding it," Fong explained.
"It will wait. What ever way I have been following takes me away from here for a while. I'll be back as soon as possible," Gabrielle said and spurred her horse into a furious gallop to take her out of the column and up a small side road just as only her army could see her.
"Stay safe my Little Dragon," Fong mumbled and turned towards Mai. The girl looked frightened stiff. "Now how about you and I tell everyone that Gabrielle isn't feeling well just before the battle? That way we avoid you getting onto the battlefield," he suggested to the frightened girl, who nodded frantically with approval.
Gabrielle rode on the dusty road baked by the heat. She had changed into her amazon battle garb that better suited the warm weather. A black enameled armor breast plate protected her chest, while heavy war boots covered her legs up to her knees and guards of the same Japanese make covered her forearms. The katana rested at her side, while her sai rested in her boots and her bow on the horse besides some rations.
She stopped the unnamed spotted horse and listened for the sounds behind the sounds. The needed focus came easily to her now, there was no need to close her eyes, to meditate or even think about it. It had become apart of her, an ability that gave her both warnings of danger and great joys of experiencing nature. It was not the first time that day that she listened like this, but this time the sounds of her horse, of leaves rustling in the hot breeze and the chirping of insects was joined by the sounds of wood and metal groaning under something large moving around. She heard wheels rattle as they ran over the sandy ground pulled by several straining horses. And she heard the sound of many men riding in armor. She had found her target.
Gabrielle pried a branch away and looked down the road at the approaching wagon. It was smaller than she had expected, but still huge by comparison to the two wheelers that the Chinese used most of the time. It was also a good deal wider. But was she had expected was its cargo. The wagon seemed to have been built around a huge metal cage in which a wondrous creature lay in what looked like a stupor. It was long and thin with black scales and a hairy back. It was a dragon like the one she had imprinted on her back, but had five toes instead of three. It seemed to be thrashing slightly from time to time.
As they drew nearer she noticed that a couple of men seemed to spend some of their time injecting the dragon with some kind of thick black liquid. Gabrielle whispered with a small smile: "From the outside this almost looks like a job for Hercules slaying the creatures of Hera instead of little old me going up against a warlord. It has been three decades, since we last saw him, I wonder how he is." She crawled out of the tree, while contemplating how she would free that dragon. She had counted six guards aside from the driver of the wagon and the two that kept drugging the dragon.
Gabrielle felt her sweaty palm sliding against the leather of her bow's grip. Taking a breath she spurred the warhorse on and thundered down the road. She would take them head on, hopefully downing most of the guards and the driver before anyone could bring up any weapons. Still she was confident that she could easily beat them even if she had to fight them in hand to hand.
The hooves of her horse hammered a steady beat. Gabrielle drew back an arrow and fired in spite of the constant rocking of her view. The arrow sailed through the air.
The driver sank together and dropped the reins.
Gabrielle quickly drew another arrow from her saddle mounted quiver.
One of the guards took out a horn and blew a long note.
"It's a trap," Gabrielle realized and loosened the arrow towards the bugler. The horn fell silent.
Gabrielle watched the remaining mounted guards pull out their weapons and bows. She dropped her bow down on the saddle knob and grabbed the reins of her horse. She commanded it to wheel them around.
The guards sent arrows her way, but the shorter range of their bows saved her and she quickly gained distance, as she rode off. Her ears caught the noise of many horses coming from both behind and in front of her. Gabrielle looked sideways. On one side the undergrowth was thick and thorny, but led down to a muddy stream. On the other side it was an uphill ride through undergrowth and trees and on the other side lays a section of open grasslands. If she didn't abandon the horse she might get away. "Yah," she yelled and spurred the horse into a desperate gallop up the side of the hill.
She heard, whoever it was that were following her, copy her example. The noise as her pursuers crashed up the forested hills somewhere behind her was thunderous.
With both chin, clothes and legs slightly torn by the branches Gabrielle thundered out onto the grassland.
Suddenly a huge group of riders emerged from the forested hills to her left. A tall and muscular man with long dark hair flapping in the wind led the way. The description matched the one she had gotten of their enemy, of Temudjin himself.
"Damn it," she cursed and veered away to the right hoping that her horse was faster than the ones they were using.
They slowly gained on her. The next section of forested hills seemed so far away that they might have been in another country to her. "Why didn't I just take Ghost instead," Gabrielle thought knowing very well that her larger warhorse would have given her the advantage now.
Arrows whizzed past her. "Damn it," she thought, when she felt the by-now familiar growl and itching feeling that signified her dragon protecting her back. An arrow clattered as it slipped from her back onto the saddle and fell to the ground.
Suddenly everything whirled and Gabrielle found herself flying through the air, the high grass quickly approaching. Behind her somewhere the horse cried out in pain.
She tucked her head in and forced her body into a roll. Instincts took over and she landed on her feet with a dust raising thump and a teeth jarring impact. "Get ready to defend yourself," she thought almost hearing Xena's impatient inflections during one of their rare training sessions. She whirled around, while drawing her katana.
A rider was in front of Temudjin, he was dressed in robes and clothing that she had only seen before amongst the desert people living beyond Egypt. He was dressed like one of the Arabs that had enslaved so many of her amazon sisters in the past. Above his head he swung a scimitar, while he and his steed thundered towards her.
Quickly she leapt up and forward, swinging her katana in a tight curve as he passed her. The jarring feeling in her arm, the sound of the cutting of both metal and flesh all ensured her that he wouldn't be an enemy in the next moments. Just as she landed an armored fist carried forward by a horse slammed into her face and sent whirled back and to the side.
She landed with stars whirling before her eyes and the landscape slightly out of focus. "A concussion," she heard the dry voice of Xena diagnose, as if they were sitting in a hospice discussing a patient. Gabrielle fought the sense of nausea and forced herself to stand as several enemy soldiers, all large, well armed and looking very angry, walked towards her.
She grabbed her katana that had landed besides her and prepared herself. In the background the man, she presumed was Temudjin and who had hit her, dismounted slowly as if the ongoing fight was a mere trifle. She decided that his arrogance would be his downfall, if she had anything to do about it. One of the men that had formed a half circle in front of her yelled out loud, as if to scare her and charged forward.
Gabrielle took a half stride forward and swung her weapon in a blinding fast slash from high left to her low right. The man opened from left lung to belly moved past her in a spray of blood and gore. The others eyed her, a lot more carefully while slowly reinforcements joined them. "Surrender Warrior Bard," the man, she presumed was Temudjin, suggested as she was outnumbered twelve to one.
She made no move; instead she judged her chances of getting out of this alive. Several of them had drawn arrows on their bows and the rest were no less armed and ready. She stood a slight chance of defeating them, but that would probably cost her life in the process. "What happens if I surrender?" She asked addressing the man, who seemed occupied with looting the corpse of the man dressed in Arabic garb.
"I want you alive General. I wouldn't have gone to all this trouble, if I hadn't thought you were worth the risk of capture. I want to speak with the woman, who is so capable. I risked the safety of my most important possession for this. I could have easily diverted that wagon onto a safer route. I am sure you know the significance of that," he explained and moved towards them.
Gabrielle hoped her ability to judge warlords wasn't off, but the look in this man eyes said that while he would let her die without batting an eye, he could be trusted on his word. In a way he was a lot like Caesar, fascinated with himself and completely aware that he was the greatest male specimen to have ever seen incarnation in this world. But for now he looked like he needed her. Later on he would either try to subjugate her and simply betray and kill her. "I surrender," she said and dropped her katana.
"Knock her out," Temudjin commanded without batting an eye as one of his men charged forward with a club and slugged her on the head. Gabrielle fell down in pain and not long after the repeated blows of the soldiers put her in a place without pain at least for a while. "Yep, just like Egypt," a dry voice, that she knew as the cynical part of herself, commented.
Gabrielle woke up to the throbbing of her head. Her mouth tasted salty probably from her own blood, but a little test shake of her head ensured her that any concussions had only been minor. Slowly she opened her eyes to find herself tied to a pillar in a large hall. Her hands were tied so that they were bent around the wide pillar behind her back. Opposite her a throne-like chair stood besides a large wooden table laden with food, drink and maps. This was probably Temudjin's headquarters, she mused.
She felt eyes stare at her and turned her eyes to the left. A woman with black hair filled with gray strains dressed in animal pelts and stinking of herbs and blood was standing in a doorway studying her. Slowly she walked over. "This is Temudjin's witch Jenn," she realized recognizing the woman from her description.
She stepped close and sent her foul smelling breath in Gabrielle's face with each wheeze. "Who are you? What is your name?" She asked and grabbed her throat. A move she had seen done by Alti. No pain or flashback followed though.
The woman seemed surprised that Gabrielle didn't react to her question and began choking her. "I am your doom little witch. I've defeated great evils before and you're playing way out of your league," Gabrielle said with more conviction than she felt.
"Really, why don't you stop me from killing you then," the witch asked and put another hand around her throat.
"Stop," Temudjin commanded as he ran into the room. Jenn released her grip, but still hovered at her side, while Gabrielle gasped for air.
"She must die Temudjin. She is dangerous to us. Don't make this mistake. Kill her now. Don't show her your mercy now! She doesn't deserve it. No one of them does," the witch screeched and slugged Gabrielle in the stomach. Gabrielle suppressed a groan not wanting to give the witch any satisfaction.
"She has been a worthy enemy and an honorable opponent. She'll die rest assured of that. I will grant her a warrior's death later. But not now leave us alone. Now I wish to speak to the woman that has outsmarted all my generals time and again," he commanded in a voice that brooked no contradiction.
"I'll go and prepare the bloodletting. The dragon has been weaned of the poison and the army is about to clash with the enemy. There is little time," the witch explained.
Temudjin looked at the witch for a moment, nodded, then dismissed her with a wave and walked over to the bard.
"How did you know I would come?" Gabrielle asked as he stopped in front of her as if seeing her for the first time.
"I have many spies in your camp. I knew all along that General Wu wouldn't believe any stories of dragons or magic. He is famed for his fervent beliefs in a world free of mystery. But you were way too smart to ignore anything like that. When I learned, how my scouts had been drugged, but no one had seen the assailant and one man had gone missing, I just knew that you had done it. After all you had been traveling through the area with your army and none of your spies are known for being creative like that. Putting Henbane in their food is quite a neat trick," he chuckled.
"So you see I knew it was you and I knew you would come alone. When I received messengers telling me that you and your regiment rode alongside Wu into combat, I almost called it off. But a little voice in my head told me that it would not hurt to be prepared if you decided to show up after all. And what do you know. Here you are. The mysterious Little Dragon. The foreigner that the impressed the conservative general Wu enough for him to give an army and the title of General to a woman. Now all I want to know, before I go to get the strength to lead myself and my people into lasting greatness, is. What your real name is? Are you really a dragon in human shape sent to stop me, as my men thinks?" He looked her straight in the eyes.
Gabrielle smiled and chuckled herself. "I guess you don't know me at all. I am just a woman, like you're just a man. Neither of us are real dragons, Temudjin. I bear a tattoo of one on my back. It was the last gift from two spirits in a faraway land, but that doesn't make me a dragon. I come to all my skills honestly. I come to them through work and suffering. So did you I believe. Don't take the gifts of that witch Temudjin. What she is giving you cannot be what you really want. I know people like her. I've fought one before. She only wants power for herself," she tried to explain.
"Bah. Tell me your name woman," he commanded.
"I am not one of your subjects Temudjin. I am not afraid of violence either. Torture and death threats don't scare me. I've both died and felt greater pain than you could ever cause before, so don't even bother. I won't bow down to you now or when you've usurped a power that doesn't belong in mortal hands. Now would be the time, when you hit me," she said and looked him straight in the eyes anger flashing in her green eyes. He lifted a hand and almost struck then stopped and shook his head.
"I'll break you in the end. All women come around in the end," he muttered and walked away leaving her alone in the echoing hall.
Gabrielle pulled at the ropes tying her hands around back of the stone pillar. "Here we are again," Gabrielle mused, "Didn't we do this in Egypt already." Gabrielle looked around, but it looked like there were no implements around to cut her bonds. Something occurred to her.
"Nitwit," she cursed, as she realized that if she was tied around the round pillar, she could slide her around it.
Slowly Gabrielle edged her way around the pillar. Against the back of the room her pack, boots with sai and katana lay in a messy pile. Blood still clung to the unsheathed blade. "Damn it, don't these fools realize that a katana rusts easily if it isn't kept clean," she muttered for her own amusement as she dropped down on her butt and stretched her legs and toes out for her katana.
Straining her toes she managed to drag her katana by the hilt across the stone floor. Outside she heard drums and voices chanting. Some kind of ritual was beginning. She was running out of time and there was no way she could pull of the same trick that she had used in Egypt to cut her ropes. But then again her katana was longer and sharper than any roman sword. Gabrielle smiled a little, slowly pulled one of her boots over and tipped it on its side.
Sweating profusely she angled the blade up onto her boot and managed to make it rest of on the blunt back side instead of on one of the sides or the edge.
Gabrielle pressed herself back up from the cold stone floor and slid back around the pillar a little.
Gabrielle hammered an outstretched foot down on the hilt of her katana. The blade slammed against the stone pillar. The cut rope felt down around her bare feet.
Running quickly over to her possessions Gabrielle grabbed her boots with the sai put them on and sheathed the dirty katana at her side. She turned towards the door Temudjin had left the room through.
Gabrielle found herself on a battlement besides a slim set of stair leading down to the sandy courtyard. The sky was lightening with the first rays of dawn. Down in the courtyard the witch was dancing around the dragon which was tied to the ground with a great number of ropes stretched from poles set into the ground. The witch was dancing around while the men that had been at her capture, Temudjin's bodyguards she assumed, were either beating drums or dancing along. In front of the creature's head stood Temudjin his chest bared and waited.
Gabrielle looked around the courtyard. She needed to free the creature that seemed increasingly to be awakening from its stupor.
Jenn whirled around and revealed a bloody dagger in her hand. Gabrielle could see a wound in the shoulder of the dragon. The witch walked towards Temudjin, her face rapt in what looked like ecstasy.
Gabrielle swallowed a lump in her throat and ran along the battlements until she was parallel with one row of ropes capturing the now snarling dragon. She drew her katana and leapt into the air, hoping that all the tricks of landing that she had seen Xena use still rested in her memory.
Gabrielle landed cutting through the first rope with her katana.
The eyes of all the bodyguards turned towards her, but few moved as they were too caught up in the ceremony.
Gabrielle charged forward, ducking below the ropes that were strung out at the height of her throat, while holding the katana in their path. With twangs indicating the released tension in the ropes, she got closer and closer to Temudjin. He was her goal. If she could, kill him or the witch the danger would be banished.
A tall warrior stepped into her way swing at her with his crude metal sword.
Gabrielle parried his sword.
Jenn smeared the blood covered dagger across the chest of Temudjin.
Gabrielle parried another strike, then suddenly turned, while completing the backwards slash that she had seen Xena do so make times before. She heard her enemy topple behind her as she whirled all the way around to face in the direction of Jenn and Temudjin again.
The dragon roared and burst free from its prison.
The bodyguards stopped dancing and beating the drums. They stared at the diminutive intruder and realized the gravity of what she had just done. The dragon was free.
Temudjin screamed in triumph, as he seemed to swell slightly. His muscles grew and his skin seemed to become slightly bronzed. Then he and Jenn turned, seemingly noticing for the first time that Gabrielle and the dragon was free.
"Quickly poison that dragon again!" Jenn commanded. No one moved.
"Now before they escape," Temudjin bellowed.
"Hop onto my back, little one," a deep and surprisingly friendly voice reminiscent of her friend Master Fong emanated from the dragon.
Temudjin jumped into the air landing besides one of his bodyguard, who had a bow.
Gabrielle blinked twice in surprise then jumped onto the back of the dragon and took good hold of its long soft hairs.
Temudjin grabbed the bow and cocked a poisoned arrow.
The dragon flew into the air carrying them away quickly. The wind rushed around it like it recognized an old friend.
Temudjin's arrow cleaved the air. It burrowed into the soft belly of the dragon. The dragon continued on flying south west towards the battlefield. "Damn it," he cursed.
"You mustn't let it get away, Temudjin. The ritual isn't finished. If you don't drink the last drop of blood from that dragon as it dies, the transfer of power will be incomplete and temporary. The arrow you shot should bring it down to rest at least for a few moments," Jenn explained.
Temudjin studied her for a moment. "Everyone on their horses, we are going after them," he commanded not noticing that his words were so loud that they echoed around the keep like thunder."
The final battle of the war raged around them, he was sure of that. Master Fong looked around the raging battlefield. Men from both sides fought each other in what looked like a grand melee that was slowly moving towards him and Mai. From afar he saw their war chariots and cavalry charge against their horse carried enemy. "Oh no," he heard Mai scream in surprise as the enemy came closer. "They won't reach us," he said and indicated the squad of soldiers that had already imposed themselves between them and the oncoming enemies.
"Still I think we should contemplate getting a bit further away from the fighting," he suggested and indicated that they should ride north out of the war zone to the relative safety of some grassy hills.
As they rode across the great field he noticed the sun suddenly disappearing. The day which had started out with not a cloud in the sky, became suddenly darker as dark ominous clouds seemed to glide down around them from the nearby mountains. The sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning mixed overhead.
"Where did that come from?" Mai asked and looked up in surprise.
"A dragon is angered," Fong whispered. A shiver ran down his spine, as they came to a stop on a hill.
"Look over there," Mai said and pointed to the north. Somewhere nestled against the mountains laid Temudjin's keep, but what Mai indicated was much closer. Far away across the entire plains, just where the hills ended, rain fell so hard that it obscured the mountains beyond from view and lightning struck the ground again and again.
"A dragon's fury strikes the ground," he whispered. "Come Mai, we must go. I think Gabrielle is in trouble," he explained and was about to spur his horse into a mad dash.
"Where do you think you're going, Little Dragon?" The furious voice of Sun Wu asked as he rode towards them with his bodyguards.
Fong and Mai whirled about. Their charade had run its course.
"Wait a minute, you aren't the Little Dragon." Fong winced at the sudden anger in Sun's voice. "You're her maid. Where is she monk?" He whirled about and stared at him.
"She decided that she would rather risk her life to save us all than follow orders," he explained.
"So she defied me," Sun said. "And where were you going just now?"
"We were going to see what that is all about," he explained and pointed in the direction of the furious storm that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, "I fear that Gabrielle may have taken on more than she can handle."
"Gabrielle? Her name is Gabrielle," Sun mused. "Not Gabrielle the Battling Bard. Not the queen of the amazons, bard, friend and successor of Xena the Warrior Princess," Sun looked genuinely shocked.
"The same," Fong admitted.
"But my father knew her. She helped in the fight against the Green Dragon and his sister. She is too young. I don't believe," Sun babbled.
"We don't have time for this, General Wu. We're leaving. Believe it or not, our friend is out there somewhere probably in trouble. Now are you going to help her or are you going to let an old monk and a maid rescue her," Fong asked.
"Of course not," Sun said and commanded his men follow him as they rode north.
Gabrielle felt the rush of the air around her as the dragon carried her over the battlements and high into the air over the keep.
"Which way," the deep voice of the dragon rumbled below her.
"South, we'll be safe amongst the armies of the Emperor," she said.
Suddenly the dragon screamed out in pain.
"What happened?" She asked and looked around only to be treated with a dizzying view of the landscape rushing by below.
"Damn those soulless animals and their poisons," the dragon cursed. "They hit me with one of their poisonous arrows again. They captured me the same way. That witch of theirs has made some unholy concoction of poisons, which weakens me greatly. Luckily it can't kill me, but I must land soon, or we'll crash down from a great height. I won't be able to help you in battle if they follow us, Little One," it explained with a sigh.
"I see. Fly as long as you can. The further we're away from them the longer time we'll have to prepare for a fight," Gabrielle said and looked at the terrain ahead of them. There was mostly rolling hills and grass lands crisscrossed with small streams coming down from the surrounding mountains. They would have no cover.
"I'll have to land soon," the dragon said, as Gabrielle noticed the ground getting closer. She could hear the weariness in its voice.
"This is your show," she said and kept holding on for her life not noticing that clouds were gathering overhead.
Suddenly the dragon dipped. They crashed hard into the high grass. Green and yellow leaves whipped against her face and arms, as they slid rapidly across the ground. Gabrielle felt her grip slip, and she found herself tumbling around in the grass.
Gabrielle shook her head and rose from the ground after making sure that every part of her was whole before she ran over to the ailing black scaled dragon, which had come to rest with his head in a small stream. Overhead the clouds grew darker.
"Are you conscious?" She asked as she noticed the green eyes of the dragon had disappeared beneath black eyelids.
"Yes," the dragon whispered. "I will be in this stupor for nearly half an hour. Maybe we can get away before the foreigners come to recapture us."
"Recapture you. I think they'll amuse themselves by killing me," Gabrielle said and estimated that a very angry Temudjin and what remained of his bodyguard would be here in less than half an hour.
"You are going to fight," the dragon said and opened a single eye to look at her.
"Yeah, I have to. I can't let them get you," she replied and sat down on a stone besides the stream to wash herself a little.
"I am sorry," the dragon offered. The air seemed oppressive and loaded with tension all of a sudden.
"It is not your fault that Temudjin is a power hungry warlord. Besides I don't mind doing things like this. It is part of what gives my life meaning," she explained.
"Being a hero gives your life meaning. What about the rest of the things that gives a life meaning: Family, friends, children and love. What happened to all of those?" It asked.
Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "I've had all of those. I've already lived through more in this life than what most people go through in several," she said with no arrogance or pretentiousness.
"I see. Still your eyes tell me that you have not found meaning in this full life you have led. You have the eyes of seeker, the eyes of a warrior who cares not for the fight. You have the eyes of a dreamer that have seen dreams fulfilled and shattered too many times. But I digress," the dragon explained.
The air began feeling cold and moist, yet seemed to lose none of its tension. Trying to steer away the conversation from her life, Gabrielle looked up and saw the darkening clouds for the first time. "That is strange, I could have sworn that it wouldn't rain today," she mumbled.
"I am sorry again. I am afraid my temper is getting away with me. We dragons have power over the weather. Now that I am free to see the sky and the fog of poison was lifted from me, except for that little annoyance back there, I have caused the approaching storm to be," the dragon explained.
"Oh, well, maybe it will slowly them down," Gabrielle said, while walking over to the place were an arrow had pierced the dragon's skin. "Don't you think if I should get that arrow out of there," she asked.
"Not a bit," the dragon replied with a chuckle, as Gabrielle took out her rather unhandy katana and in fast swipe cut the arrow and its head free. The dragon twisted and turned for a bit then to Gabrielle's astonishment the wound closed before her eyes, disappearing like it had never been there.
"The advantages of immortality are vast," the dragon chuckled. It sounded like a deep rumble that she even felt through her soles.
"We still didn't quite clarify, why you have chosen to lead the life you do? Why are you here?" The dragon asked. "Come on little one, it will help pass the time, until the inevitable happens," it offered.
Gabrielle looked at it then looked back in the direction she presumed Temudjin would appear from. "Okay, why not. I don't think I chose this life consciously at first. But I had plenty of chances and offers to leave the route my life took. At first I was like a child I followed a friend in her adventures. Then it became a habit, kind of a dangerous job even. Soon however it became serious, I lost my childishness and for a while I didn't know my way around anymore. I tried to find it and found several wrong ways out of my childhood, until I happened upon one that was right and carried me along. It was a path that went alongside that of my friend, but still different. I expected it to fill me with sadness and so it did, but when I finally walked alone, I have done so for years, I learned that there was no other way for me to live. This is my path in life. Only no matter how hard I sought to define it, give it a name, and then one of my actions would make the name feel wrong, as if it didn't explain my path right. You're right, I am a seeker and maybe I'll be seeking to define my path and myself for the remainder of my life, but in the end I will have lived. Do you understand it a little better now?" Gabrielle looked at the dragon for confirmation.
"Yes," it rumbled. "So you're not seeking your way in life, you just fear that if you define it wrong the words you give it could take you astray."
"Yeah, that is probably as close as we can get for now," Gabrielle said. They both fell silent, lost in thought.
In the distance she saw black dots. Temudjin and his bodyguards were only minutes away. "They're coming," she said and drew her katana again.
"Don't get hit by their arrows," the dragon said gravely.
"That goes for you too. As soon as you can get out of here," she replied.
"Yeah, but me they will only hurt. My blood protects me. The poison on those arrows will kill you within mere minutes," the dragon explained.
"Ah, I think I won't get hit then," Gabrielle said with a nod her eyes never leaving the horizon except for a sweep for anyone trying to sneak up on them. Thunder rolled in the skies above them. She began running towards her enemy.
Even from a far it was easy for her to count her enemies. Eight bodyguards armed with swords and maces rode in front of Temudjin himself. He looked bigger even from a far.
Gabrielle said nothing, she only watched as they drew nearer. She called upon every lesson and memory of Xena and drew in breath. Eight enemies wouldn't be a problem.
The rider thundered towards her. The hooves of their horses made the ground rumble as they approached. Temudjin rose in his stirrups, drew back a large thick arrow nearly dripping with poison and let do.
Gabrielle reached out.
The projectile suddenly rested in her left hand. Quickly she turned it between her fingers, so it pointed tip first.
The riders were only a few yards from her. With a hard throw she launched the missile into the leg of the bodyguard in front. He screamed and tore at the arrow as he passed her.
The next came at her his mace swinging in a low curve to beat her brains out of her skull.
Gabrielle launched herself into the air. She turned, stretched out both her legs, and grinned when she soon after found herself standing atop the dismounted bodyguard, as they landed in the high grass together. She used his windpipe as a launching pad, as she jumped into the air for another attack.
Her body whirled in the air and landed in the grass between the next two charging bodyguards. Wishing once more that she had the Chakram she swung her katana in a wide arc. It connected heavily with the forelegs of their horses. The bodyguards were thrown to the ground by the wounded horses.
The rest skidded to a halt not far in front of her and leapt from their horses, anger apparent in their faces as they walked menacingly towards her. Gabrielle drew her bloody katana back to her left ready to strike at any moment.
"Kill her now," the voice of Temudjin boomed over their battlefield. Temudjin was cocking another poisoned arrow on his bow as he spoke.
The two downed bodyguards rushed towards her from each side.
"Xena," Gabrielle screamed and dashed forward, hoping that Temudjin wouldn't fire his arrow if she was in melee with his men. Rain came from the sky in a heavy stream.
A mace screamed through air towards her head from the right. Gabrielle turned to face it and took a step back. She slashed the katana from her low left to high right. The mace and a forearm landed in the grass at the feet of the bodyguard behind her.
Gabrielle heard the whistle of a blade and felt a searing pain as a sword cut a path across the skin of her left arm. She rolled to her left and swung the katana into the guts of her opponent.
Gabrielle tore at the blade to free it from her groaning and dying enemy. A mace swung down towards her hands from the right. Desperately she let go of her beloved blade, and as she tumbled backwards she was treated to the sight and sound of the fine weapon's destruction. The katana shattered pieces landed with her dead enemy on the ground.
As fast as she could she whipped out her trusty sai and whirled them around to rest against the back of her wrists.
The bodyguard that had shattered her weapon ran towards her, when his eyes suddenly went wide. His already dying body flew back as two sai came to rest in his chest. Gabrielle wasn't far behind as she jumped forward, used her sai as handles, flipped across his body and landed back on her feet holding her now bloody sai in her hands.
She had two opponents and the still aiming Temudjin awaiting her. Wary but ready to fight, the two bodyguards prepared to circle her. Temudjin released another arrow. Gabrielle had kept him in her peripheral vision and easily sidestepped the missile.
One of the bodyguards armed with a sword lunged for her, but Gabrielle had easily followed his path even if he was out of her sight. As the other in front also armed with a sword followed his example. She felt a strange detachment, as she counted their steps and judged their speed for a moment.
Gabrielle vaulted into a backwards flip and landed behind her would-be attacker. She took no pleasure in seeing him being run through by his friend. His sword looked caught in the corpse of his friend.
While the last man struggled to free his sword Gabrielle stepped forward and kicked him hard in his chest sending his to the ground. He scrambled back to his feet. He struck out at her. She easily parried his fist with a sai enforced forearm and smashed a pummel into his temple. His eyes crossed and his body crumbled into her follow-up scissor kick. Gabrielle felt something impact against her back. Her dragon roared and a now harmless projectile fell to the ground behind her.
"Damn you woman," Temudjin screamed and jumped from his horse. He slowly drew a huge and crude blade from his saddle. Gabrielle wasn't sure that she could even carry such a weapon much less parry it.
"I'm going to kill you, then I'm going to drink that dragon's blood and if I find the time I'll slaughter everyone on this world that has ever known you," he swore and swung the huge weapon around like it weighed nothing.
Gabrielle tried to look as unimpressed as possible, while her mind tried to analyze the fighting style of her opponent. He was stronger, used a huge and heavy weapon, yet he swung and handled it like it was a dagger. His movements betrayed none of the arrogance in style that Xena's had shown her in the fighting styles of people like Caesar. She forced herself not to swallow the lump of fear that had formed in her throat.
Temudjin swung his weapon in a large arc. Gabrielle thanked her height and speed for her survival as she ducked below the huge weapon.
Eyeing her chance she rolled forward below his guard and tried to plunge her sai into his stomach.
But the huge man was as agile as her and he simply jumped out of reach of her attack.
Quickly Gabrielle rolled to her right just ducking into and under Temudjin sword as it hammered down in an arc for her middle section. She used her chance to kick him in his left elbow.
Temudjin growled slightly. He tried another swing from low to high. Gabrielle rolled back to avoid a massive wound.
But Temudjin was fast, he took a step forward and swung his sword in a downwards arc as if trying to split her in two.
Sensing it was too late to get out of the reach of his attack Gabrielle swung her sai up in crossed block.
With a great metal crash that sent jarring tremors out through her arms the weapons met. Temudjin drew his sword back and laughed. Gabrielle watched with horror as her sai's shattered pieces fell between her arms and only the grey metal handles wrapped in black leather remained. The last remnant of her life with Xena still in her possession was gone.
Unaware that she snarled Xena's name and tears ran down her cheeks Gabrielle charged towards the still laughing warlord. Using all the hand to hand knowledge learned from her adventures she kicked Temudjin's sword away. It flew away amongst the now muddy grass field.
As lightning hammered the ground around them she punched the arrogant man his face and repeatedly hammered her knee into his stomach. He staggered backwards.
Gabrielle came at him again. But even her pure rage couldn't win over the power Temudjin had gained from the dragon's blood. He blocked her right arm and followed up with a hammering blow to her chest. Gabrielle flew back and landed hard on the ground. Blood filled her mouth with its salty taste.
Suddenly Temudjin's hand wrapped around her throat and lifted her from the ground as if nothing had happened. Gabrielle felt detached as her arm frantically tried to claw at his eyes, but they couldn't reach her enemy. Her kicks seemed to have no effect.
"I think you should die slowly," he said looking into her eyes with his cold orbs. Gabrielle heard the slick sound as he drew a poisoned arrow from the quiver tied to his back.
She refused to show any fear as he brought up the deadly weapon and showed it to her. Smiling grimly the man stabbed the arrow into the right side of her chest and ripped it back out again. Gabrielle couldn't help screaming in pain. Overhead thunder rolled, lightning flashed and rain crashed down.
A searing feeling quickly spread through her chest. It truly was a lethal poison. She forced herself to become limp.
"I want to look in your eyes as you dwindle away before you're conqueror," Temudjin said and drew her close to his eyes.
"I have a gift for you," Gabrielle whispered.
"What?" Temudjin asked.
Gabrielle's hands shot out like vipers and pressed three places on Temudjin's throat. He gurgled in pain as the pinch froze his muscles and began choking the life from his brain.
Gabrielle fell to the ground as the paralyzed man lost all strength in his limbs. "That was from all the innocent people your petty quest has killed," Gabrielle whispered and began crawling away.
"Please undo this. I mustn't die like this, not like this," Temudjin's choked voice begged behind her.
Gabrielle ignored his plea, he didn't deserve her help.
"You can't kill me in cold blood. You are one of the good guys. Please, Little Dragon I deserve a warrior's death," he pleaded.
It was in the interest of the greater good that he died she decided and kept on crawling, while a perverse voice in her head slowly counted towards zero. A slight gurgle indicated the death of her enemy. She didn't care or feel any guilt as she crawled towards the dragon that couldn't be far away. The storm that had grown to fill the entire plain between the mountains seemed to grow stronger.
Gabrielle felt the searing pain spread through her limbs. The poison was in her blood. The dragon appeared in her view. It was walking towards her.
"You are wounded," it said.
"Mortally I'm afraid," Gabrielle mumbled wryly through numbing lips.
"I still wonder why you choose to suffer to protect people that are not of your blood," the dragon said.
"I protect… That is it," Gabrielle said and laughed with a wet gurgle as blood stained her lips. She smiled thankfully to the dragon; it had helped solve her puzzle.
"Riders are approaching from the south," the dragon said urgently. Gabrielle could no longer muster the ability to listen for faraway sounds.
"What… are… they… wearing," Gabrielle whispered as she turned herself over onto her back.
"Silk in many different colors and a monk rides with them," the dragon explained.
"They are friends... You're safe then," she sighed and closed her eyes.
"Faster," Sun Wu commanded as some of his men began slowing to allow their horses to catch their breath. Not far in front of them a huge black shape rose out of a battlefield littered with dead soldiers of Temudjin and their horses. Sun nearly felt his heart stop as something he had assumed was only a myth appeared before his eyes. "By the celestials," he cried out as a black dragon rose from the grass to peer at them.
"Get off your horses, take off your helmets and give honor to the brave warrior that lies here," it commanded.
With bowed heads Wu, Fong and Mai approached the dragon and the form that lay in front of it. Gabrielle lay in the downtrodden grass. Her beautiful form only marred by a cut to her arm and a stab wound to the chest.
"Gabrielle," Fong whispered reverently tears flowing from his old eyes as he bent down to examine her lifeless body.
"I'm still here," she answered causing the man to scramble back.
"I did it Fong," she said and coughed some blood onto her lips.
"Yes I can see. The dragon is free and I saw the corpse of Temudjin lying just over there. Your friend will be very proud," he said as his eyes recognized the signs of poisoning.
"No, it wasn't that. I found my way. I believe I've been following the path of the protector," she coughed and her eyes fluttered shut for a moment then reopened. "Everything I've ever done that felt right, was for the protection of others. I am not a warrior, I am a protector. Mom… Will I see Xena now? Will I be at her side now? I missed you…" Her eyes closed and her breathing shuddered to a stop.
Mai fell to her knees and embraced the wailing monk.
Sun stood silently holding his sword so hard his knuckles were white and his palm bled. Tears flowed freely all around. In a tear choked voice he spoke: "I knew her as the Warrior Bard, as the brave Little Dragon. Gabrielle was the greatest, kindest and wisest person I've known my entire life. The Empire will honor her memory until it falls as she gave her life. It was the greatest gift it will ever receive."
Fong stepped forward to gather the body of his fallen friend, but the dragon imposed its head between them. "No, this warrior died to free me. The celestial dragons will grant her body some rest in my valley," and as it spoke it gently took the body of Gabrielle in its mouth and rose into the air flying away to the north and west.
The heavens had poured rain for weeks as if crying for their loss. The armies of the empire had destroyed their enemy, but none had wanted to tarnish their victory with a campaign into the homelands of their enemy. The Emperor had declared a time of sorrow not only for their great hero but for all the lives lost.
Xena sat as if she had been rooted to the spot. Her eyes unseeing, her ears hoping to ignore all sound, she tried hard to make her heart forget, what she had learned. Forcing herself not to cry, she rose from the mat in front of the ancient and crying monk. "Thank you for the story, I will leave you to your tasks," she said and walked resolutely from the room.
"Yes, Gabrielle was a tiger touched by a dragon. My friend, I think your dragon has returned only its tiger is gone," he addressed the heavens and lay back down on his mat. It was night and tomorrow there was another day awaiting him.
Xena walked through the palace, tears flowing from her eyes. "She wanted to rest at my side. She wanted to be buried in Amphipolis with me. I will fulfill her wishes," she mumbled again and again as she headed out to find her horse. Tears flowed freely from her azure eyes as she stalked the dark halls of the palace.
Don't be angry, trust me and go read 'True Tiger', when it is done. I have this entire series planned out in advance and even if this took me twice as long as expected due to real world issues I will be waiting in the end with a happy ending.
Keep an eye out for the 5th part of the Darkness and the Light series: True Tiger. As the heartbroken Xena travels across Chin to recover her friends, she recalls now pointless struggle to come back to life. Experience her rage as she learns that Jenn is still alive and plotting to undo all the good Gabrielle did.
Return to the Academy