he Taoist temples in Ten had enjoyed great renown since ancient times.
Ten was a shire of Kou Province in the Kingdom of Tai. Situated to the east and far north of the known world, the Kingdom of Tai had long been characterized by its severe winters, the bitter cold of its northern territories in particular. The upper reaches of Kou Province were no exception, the pervasive chill as fierce as the heavy snows. Crisscrossed by craggy mountains, arable land was scarce and the soil poor, yielding little in the way of agricultural produce.
Already sparsely populated with towns and hamlets, a whole region of Ten Shire was taken up by the Imperial Reserves in and around Bokuyou Mountain. There, on a ridge located along its southern slopes, the history of the Taoist temples traced back to the founding of Zui’un Temple.
Widely considered the head Taoist temple in the Kingdom of Tai, Zui’un constituted the core of a large temple complex. Taoist and even Buddhist temples large and small hugged the mountain peaks and promontories all around Zui'un.
The Imperial ritual observances that reached all the way down to the local rishi were not, by nature, religious, but were functions of the state. Instead, the faithful turned to the Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries, which in turn became the birthplaces of many schools of knowledge and technology.
A desire to answer the wishes of the people for good harvests and good health lay behind the creation of these grand repositories of science and scholarship. Chief among the compounds formulated and manufactured in the temples were traditional herbal medicines and sundry elixirs of life.
In order to preserve the legacy and ensure the promulgation of these stores of knowledge, Taoist monks from across the kingdom gathered in Ten Shire. Although the majority of the Taoist and Buddhist temples were founded with study, discipline, and training in mind, many commoners also journeyed there on pilgrimages.
Settlements naturally sprang up outside the temple gates, followed in due course by incorporated hamlets and villages. Ten Shire grew along with the Taoist temples. And when they were destroyed and reduced to ashes, Ten Shire fell into an inevitable downward spiral.
Six years ago, Zui’un Temple had jumped to the forefront in criticizing the recently installed “provisional emperor.”
It’d been half a year since a new emperor was enthroned in Tai. A short span of time after the accession, word came that the emperor had passed away. Though a successor quickly occupied the throne, the chain of events was suspicious. The accusation that this was a palace coup plotted by the current emperor against his predecessor first came from Zui’un Temple.
Not long thereafter, the Imperial Army launched an attack against Zui’un Temple. Labeled guilty by association, the neighboring temples and the villages outside the gates were not spared.
Hence the desolate and deserted state of the region.
Only the charred ruins ravaged by the wind and snow remained on the scattered mountain peaks. Few of the villages escaped destruction. One in three had completely depopulated while the rest sank into privation and poverty.
Bathed in glow of the setting sun, shadowy silhouettes struggled along the roads of Ten Shire. In the past, these same roads bustled with people traveling to and from the Taoist and Buddhist temples. Not a trace remained of those halcyon times.
The road wound up and around one hill after the other. With the steep decline in foot traffic, the weeds grew back in earnest, and now the late fall undergrowth covered the path like a blanket.
Three figures climbed the hill, two adults and a child—a middle-aged man carrying a pack on his back and a young woman in her twenties holding the hand of a child of just three. They cast long shadows on the road ahead as they climbed the hill at a snail’s pace, matching the child’s uncertain steps.
Ahead of them, Ryou’un Mountain rose like a towering black wall to pierce the clouds. The name of this Ryou’un Mountain was Mount Bokuyou. Word was that long ago it’d been bequeathed to a Wizard of the Air. But for the past several centuries it had sat there abandoned, neither occupied nor visited by a living soul.
Zui’un Temple once occupied the mountain ridges that descended like the folds in a fan from Bokuyou Mountain to the road. The band of golden tiles that reached across the land only six short years before had since been reduced to charred skeletons covering the cruel hills.
Here and there in the scorched and withered forests, scourged by hellish fires and pockmarked with patches of dead ground, a few young trees brandished green and red leaves. But they alone could not restore the devastated landscape. The undergrowth alone revealed some signs of vitality, forming a faded sea of wild grasses painted with the desiccated colors of autumn.
The three made their way along those slopes, walking determinedly toward the village atop the hill. They were by now the sole travelers on the road. Only the flitting shadow from a bird flying through the sky above cast any additional movement across their paths.
The whisper of a passing evening breeze compelled the young women to raise her head. The road passed between two mountains, the course so narrow it resembled a cavern. The fall wind whispered through the ravine.
The young woman was from Jou Province in the northeast. The north of Jou was famous for its heavy snows. She’d been born in one of the poor small villages that clung to the sides of the cliffs in the steep mountain valleys.
At the age of eighteen, she married into a neighboring village that was much the same as the one she left. It burned to the ground three years ago, a conflagration that took her husband as well. Leaving their two children in her care, he had rushed off to fight the fires consuming the Rishi. He never returned.
With her newborn son in her arms, taking her young daughter by the hand, they fled with only the clothes on their backs. The fires raged for three days and three nights. When the conflagration subsided, nothing in the village remained except for mountains of ash and the pitiful Riboku, charred as black as midnight.
The woman shivered as the cool breeze soaked through her clothing like cold water. Deep hues colored the clear evening sky above, staining the mountain ridges an indigo blue. The sky seemed farther away than the day before. This growing distance to the heavens marked the departure of the season, just as the darkening purple sky marked the dying of the day.
Autumn was drawing to a close.
The brilliant colors of summer—shockingly clear skies and vivid white clouds and warm rain falling on the bright green countryside—that sun washed season was followed by too short an autumn—and when this shining season passed, all that remained was the steep descent into the bitter cold winter.
Such are the seasons of this kingdom, she thought to herself as she watched the bird high above drift into the distance and out of sight.
The man with the dark features who’d stayed for a while as a guest in the village—she later heard he had once been the prime minister of Jou Province. When the province lord of Jou swore allegiance to the new “emperor,” he tried and failed to assassinate him. Although he managed to escape the provincial capital, every village that took him in was punished with fire, a wave of vengeance that swept away the woman’s husband and house and the lives of her neighbors.
She couldn’t help thinking how the charred Riboku represented the fate of the village as well. The tree that had blessed her with two children—and that she once had every reason to believe would so bless the other villagers as well—had charrred and died like withered old wood.
No helping hand reached out to save the mother and children who had lost the place they called home. Fire-ravaged villages were abandoned where they stood, showing no signs even of rebuilding and restoring the Rishi. In the face of the oncoming winter, the refugees had no choice but to seek shelter in nearby villages.
But such communities could not spare the resources they would need to rebuild a life and start over. As soon as the snows thawed, they were sent on their way. Ever since, with no permanent abode to return to, she had wandered wherever her instincts led her.
Having been burned out of her home, the women fled with nothing to her name. She looked for work along the way, hoping to find a place where they could settle down. Three years had passed without success. Her journey finally brought her here to Ten Shire.
She hitherto had no destination in mind, no possessions, and no visible means of making it through the coming winter. Two years ago, she’d just barely managed to survive. A year ago, she’d somehow endured. The older of her two children had not. However closely they snuggled together, her four-year-old daughter had frozen to death.
How would they winter over this year?
Fall was coming to its melancholy end. Looking up at the sky, the woman drew her shoulders together and took a deep breath.
Ahead of her, a bright voice called out, “What’s the matter, Enshi?”
Enshi turned toward the sound of the voice and smiled broadly in relief. The man carrying the big pack stopped on the rough road before her and glanced back at her. But of course, she was not alone.
“Something wrong?” he asked again, hurrying back to her side.
She shook her head. “Just thinking about how it’s getting cold.”
“That’s for sure.” He glanced down at the child holding Enshi’s hand. “Ritsu could use a new coat too.”
The child beamed in response. Still nursing when they’d been burned out of their village, the boy had turned three years old on the road.
“I think he’ll be okay,” Enshi said. “He’s got the one from last year.”
The man smiled again, crinkling his already narrow eyes. “But last year’s clothes hardly fit him now.” He patted Ritsu on the head. “He’s already grown so big.”
Enshi smiled. She’d met the man the previous winter in a city in the west of Ba Province. Weeping as she struggled to bury her daughter, Enshi dug at the frozen ground. Her own powerlessness mortified her. She couldn’t protect her own child, utterly helpless to save her as she succumbed to hunger and the cold.
The snowpack was hard and unyielding. No matter how hard she leaned on the shovel, she made no progress. If she gave up and left her beneath the snow, the little body would be exposed to the elements when spring came and the snow melted. If Enshi could not protect her daughter, she could at least give her a proper burial. Yet she couldn’t even do that. Disgusted by her own weakness, she drove the shovel into the snow as she wept.
That was when the man appeared and lent her a hand.
His name was Kouryou. Like Enshi, he had lost his home and gone on the road with no destination in mind. He’d been a carpenter in his previous life. His pack was filled with finely crafted household items and toys made out of scraps of wood. Along the way, he’d venture into the nearby mountains, retrieve pieces of bamboo and tree branches, and fashion them into ladles and spoons and the other small items.
The goods sold for a pittance, but given the meager requirements of daily living, it was enough to get by.
Enshi had previously seen him several times on the street. She’d ventured into that town in the west of Ba Province in hopes of finding a way to winter over there. Kouryou played a flute on a street corner with a jolly air. When children crowded around, he passed out silly little toys. The delighted children dragged over their mothers and Kouryou garrulously pitched his household sundries.
He was just another one of the street vendors, but his thin, tall stature reminded her of her husband. He had a relaxed ambience about him, a ready and natural laugh around children, and narrow eyes that closed to slits when he smiled. Though a good ten years older than her husband, the memories he brought to mind moved her deeply.
He came to Enshi’s rescue as she knelt in despair in the snow. He restrained her hands as she pawed at the snow and closed her fingers around a warm stone. Then in her stead, he shoveled away the snow and dug a grave in the iron-hard earth. When they were finished, he treated them to a warm meal at an inn and gave Ritsu a wooden toy.
Learning that Enshi and Ritsu would be spending the night beneath the eaves of the Rishi, he invited her to stay at his boarding house. After that, he helped out however he could. When spring came and the snows melted, the travelers and refugees who had gathered in the town moved on. He offered to accompany her. When she explained she had no particular place to go, he said he’d help find her one.
In any case, he wasn’t headed anywhere either, so he might as well tag along until she found a place to settle down.
Kouryou said, “When we get to town, how about we rummage through a secondhand clothing store?”
He directed his gaze at the top of the hill, where a small village sat at the top of the rise. The palisades surrounding the settlement glowed red in the light of the setting sun.
“We don’t have far to go. Hang in there, Ritsu,” he said, taking the boy by the hand.