1-3 The evening sun slanted low across the landscape. Within the Imperial Reserve, the towering Mount Ryou’un cast its immense shadow across the road. Enshi glanced up at the darkening sky. Kouryou followed her gaze.
“It’ll be night soon. We’d better find a place to bed down.”
Enshi nodded. They hadn’t traveled that far from Touka. The grade of the road grew steeper as it approached the pass, crossing through multiple switchbacks across the mountain slope. Walking the switchbacks was tiring work, especially considering the little distance covered.
Kouryou asked them to wait for a minute, handed Ritsu to Enshi, and hiked up the precipitous bank of the road. The high shoulders blocked out the rest of the world. He reached the top and soon came back down, shaking his head.
“Nothing but boulders and underbrush. I don’t see any decent camping grounds further up the road either. I know it’s asking a lot at this point, but there’s a forest at the top of the rise here. We may find a place to stay safe and dry there.”
“Oh,” said Enshi in a half-dejected tone. She let out a breath. So they’d be sleeping outdoors tonight too. She squeezed Ritsu’s hand and started up the steep shoulder of the road.
The night dew fell like rain in the thickets, making it difficult to sleep. Even worse, the sky was darkening in the west. The weather might change after sundown. During this season, when the mornings so often broke cold and chill, an actual rainstorm during the night was a horror. However small Ritsu was, getting soaked like a little wet mouse robbed him of what body heat he had. The forest canopy should help fend off the wind and rain. Though a little wouldn’t nearly be enough.
Finding footholds between the rocky crags and clumps of overgrown grass, they hiked up the slope. Rewarding their hard work, at the end of the climb, a meadow spread out before them. As Kouryou said, across the gentle grassy slope a forest came into view. If they kept going in this direction, they’d probably end up back on the road they’d just left.
At this rate, how many more days will it take to reach the town on the other side of the pass?
This thought on her mind, she cheerfully admonished Ritsu, “Let’s keep on going until we get there.”
His hand in hers, they waded through the tall grass. A few steps on, Ritsu began to complain. He was still a small child and the path was a hard one. Moreover, the rubble scattered beneath the thick grass and underbrush—perhaps the remains of a Taoist temple—constantly tripped them up.
Having not had a good night’s rest in two days made it all the worse. Taking Ritsu’s age into account, he had done well to make it this far. As a reward for his hard efforts, Enshi stooped to pick him up. Kouryou put down his pack. Hooking his arm through the straps, he crouched down in front of Ritsu. Ritsu happily scrambled onto his back.
How much better if we could keep going like this.
Ritsu as well would miss Kouryou terribly when the day came when he was no longer there. Enshi felt all the more despondent. This was a desolate kingdom populated by people with nothing to spare. Even if they found a place to settle down, she would have to raise Ritsu in an unknown town in the middle of an era such as this.
Sinking into her thoughts, Enshi trudged up the meadow. Halfway or so across the grassy slope, Kouryou stopped. He set down Ritsu and shifted a leather bag from his waist to his overcoat pocket. The bag held several small knives and blades.
Enshi glanced around, thinking maybe Kouryou had spotted a tree that could provide the raw material for his woodworking. But they still had a way to go before reaching the forest. To their right and left, boulders overgrown with flowering fall weeds covered the ground.
Kouryou turned to her. When Enshi hurried up to him, he placed Ritsu’s hand in hers.
Enshi said, “I’m sorry. I guess he does get heavy after a while.”
“Not at all. But you need to look after him for now. Don’t let go of his hand.”
“Nothing,” Kouryou said in a strained voice.
He abruptly turned his eyes up the slope. Following his gaze, Enshi was sure she spotted a shadow flitting along the edge of the trees before disappearing deeper into the forest.
“Right now—that was—”
“Yes. A fox or some other creature. Do what you can to cheer up Ritsu. He’s still out of sorts. Climbing this far has left him all tuckered out.”
“Yes, it has.”
Enshi clasped Ritsu’s hand. Kouryou strapped on the pack and pulled out the flute he usually kept stuck through the straps. When Ritsu got worn out along the journey, Kouryou played the flute for him. Ritsu loved the sound of Kouryou’s flute. The bright and cheerful sound put him in a better mood and helped him pick up the pace.
This time as well, Kouryou smiled and exhorted Ritsu, “Chin up!” He raised the flute to his lips and trilled a lively tune.
Enshi didn’t really didn’t understand why, but she didn’t think Kouryou was a very talented flutist. It was a crude instrument to start with and shouldn’t be expected to produce a rich or pleasant sound. But his playing always lifted her spirits. Ritsu raised his free hand, grinning as he closed and opened his fist as he chased after Kouryou.
Kouryou abruptly ceased playing. He halted in his tracks and shot a look to the side.
Two, three dark shadows darted out from a low outcropping of rock and plunged through the sea of tall grass toward them. Startled, Enshi stopped as well. The men charging at them carried sickles and pitchforks. She pulled Ritsu closer. The men glared at Enshi, menacing her with their scowling faces and brawny frames.
“Not her,” the man in the middle said. He clucked to himself and looked around. “Where did the rest of them go?” He turned his intimidating attention back to Enshi. “You see two people with kijuu?”
Enshi shook her head. Looking again, one of the men was carrying a crossbow. The small man hefting the weapon examined Enshi like a bidder at a cattle auction. Highwaymen, Enshi realized. She couldn’t help shivering. In this impoverished land, there was no shortage of gangs that preyed on travelers for their money and belongings.
Even the ordinary resident of an ordinary village might take to assaulting passing travelers in his spare time—because that was the only way to put food on the table. Rumors held that entire towns eked out a living through highway robbery.
Enshi had in her pocket the small amount of earnings she’d saved thanks to Kouryou. Though a trifling amount, losing it would leave her in no little distress.
The man with the crossbow sniffed and lowered the weapon. “There’s nothing for you further on. Stick to the road and keep going.”
Nothing worth stealing here, he meant. Enshi breathed a sigh of relief and pressed her hand against her pocket.
“Whoa, not so quick,” said the big man with the pitchfork. “Take another look. Don’t let down your guard with this bunch.”
Not aware of how her hand covered her pocket, Enshi started to retreat. The small man fixed her with a glare.
“Lady, what’s that you got in your pocket?”
Enshi felt her body go numb. If all she lost were her material possessions, she could live with that. Except kind of ruffians were equally likely to kill their victims to shut them up. Enshi wrapped her arms around Ritsu. She wanted to at least save him. Considering his future, Enshi couldn’t afford to die here either. But she hardly possessed the power to drive them off.
Her body was too enervated from fear to pick up Ritsu and run away. Even Kouryou—Enshi looked at him. In this age, and for all his years on the road, he still didn’t carry a sword. He was a gentle man who liked people and had taken it upon himself to care for her and Ritsu. In a cruel turn of fate, that’s how he’d ended up in this precarious position.
“If it’s money you want, they you can have it, but—” spare our lives, she was about to say when a shout echoed from the rocky outcropping.
“Those people are only travelers looking for a place to stay.”
She glanced up. The young man they’d encountered at the gate. He was holding the same shepherd’s crook as when they met a short time ago. He used the staff to herd goats. He regripped the crook—no, the truncheon—and gave Enshi a rueful look.
“This is not a good place for you to be. Best you hurry along and don’t ask any questions.”
Enshi nodded and turned on her heels. The big man stood in front of her. He seized Enshi’s arm with an unforgiving grip.
“Hand over what’s in your pocket.”
Before she could even scream, Kouryou interposed himself between them.
“Stop it, Kouryou!” Enshi cried out. “Don’t fight with him. If it’s money he wants, I’ll put it right here.”
She reached into her pocket. Kouryou arrested her movements. “No,” he grunted. “You’re going to need those funds later on.” He spoke in an unusually calm voice. His placid demeanor struck her as all the more curious. He narrowed his eyes and cast a sharp look at the big man. “Let her go. We’re done with this place.”
“That’s not going to happen,” the big man said.
He tightened his grip, wrenching her arm. Kouryou reached out. Enshi didn’t understand what he was doing. His fingers closed around the man’s arm. That alone compelled the man to release the rough hand holding her. He raised a surprised shout, stumbled backwards, and shot a bloodthirsty glare at Kouryou.
He’ll kill you if you resist! Enshi was about to shout. The big man raised the pitchfork high in the air. She screamed instead. At the same time, she heard Ritsu’s high-pitched cry. Everything had taken a turn for the worse.
Or so she was certain—except the only one left cowering was the big man with the pitchfork. The other highwaymen stood stock still and gawked as he staggered and sank to his knees. He pressed his forehead against the earth and moaned. Kouryou looked on impassively. He wasn’t brandishing a knife or a sword. He was holding the flute.
Enshi stared in surprise. The man with the sickle raised an angry bellow. Kouryou parried the sweep of the curved steel and batted it away. Caught off balance, his attacker pitched forward on his face. At almost the same time, the small man dropped the crossbow with a timid yelp. A small blade pierced his hand—one of the knives Kouryou used in his woodworking.
The man with the sickle took a firmer hold of the weapon and faced off against Kouryou. Kouryou deftly dodged the thrust and clobbered him with the flute, prompting a wounded shriek.
Enshi stood there, eyes wide in disbelief. Kouryou gave her a shove. “Get going! Run!”
Enshi nodded. She grabbed hold of Ritsu’s hand and ran in the one open direction left to them.
The tottering, staggering gang again roused themselves to action. They ranted and raved, twisted their faces into fierce scowls. All Enshi could see of Kouryou was his back as he turned his unruffled demeanor to his opponents.
No sooner had the scene registered in her senses but Ritsu awoke from his stupefied daze and began to bawl. Enshi picked him up and ran through the tall grass. If they reached the forest, they could hide amongst the trees in the deepening dusk.
She gasped for breath as she ran. Ahead of her, more men spilled down the slope.
Enshi came to a halt so suddenly her forward momentum knocked her head over heels. Ritsu yelped as if struck by a hot spark. She didn’t need to see the weapons in their hands to know these were the highwaymen’s confederates. Catching the sight of the brigand in the middle, his dirty jacket darkened with old stains, her head reeled.
“Who is that man!” he exploded, glaring at the bottom of the slope.
Enshi could hear Kouryou’s shouts behind her. Taking in the scene, the man raised the tip of his sword with a cruel nonchalance.
Enshi drew Ritsu tightly to her, shut her eyes, and resigned herself to the killing blow to come. The shock and pain never arrived. A roar echoed in her ears, jumbled together with heavy footsteps. A piercing shriek rang out, with other strange sounds mingling in-between—the growl of a beast and the flapping of wings.
A youma, was her first thought. Then she remembered what the first highwayman said when they attacked. Two people with kijuu.
Enshi opened her eyes. She found herself staring straight at a large beast with a white body. It lowered its black head and butted one of the highwaymen, sending him flying.
“Get on your feet,” someone said in a low voice.
Enshi looked up. A tall woman stood next to her.
“Take the child. Head for the far side of the meadow and hide in the underbrush.”
The woman spoke in a calm tone of voice. Despite great feelings of unease, Enshi nodded, picked up Ritsu, and ran back down the slope. She tumbled across the rocky outcropping and plunged into the underbrush. Looking for a place to lie down, her feet slipped out from under her. The ground beneath her feet vanished. She soles of her shoes touched—nothing.
She didn’t have time to scream. One arm around Ritsu, she grasped at the weeds with her free hand. The lower half of her body slipped out over empty air. The roots started to snap and give way. She could at least save her son. She was about to boost him onto the slope when the image of Ritsu wandering around in front of the highwaymen searching for his mother rose up in her thoughts.
Whether to let him go or not—in that moment of indecision, frantically flaying about with her legs in the desperate hope of finding a foothold—something touched the bottoms of her feet.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw only thin air. Beneath her, hands supported her feet. One of the highwaymen? Except if he was trying to intimidate her, he’d be dragging her down, not holding her up.
With one arm still around Ritsu, she relaxed her free hand and slid down the face of the cliff until her chest was clean over the precipice. Those hands were there, firmly holding her up, ready to catch her.
Glancing over the shoulder again, this time she made out a human figure beneath her. A young man in his teens. He encouraged her with a nod. With an overwhelming sense of relief, Enshi released her hold on the weeds and slid down the rest of the way. As soon as she fell into those supporting arms, her toes touched solid ground. The distance was at most no greater than her own height.
All the energy left her body. She let go of Ritsu and collapsed into a sitting position on the ground. From above her came howls and curses and the brutal sounds of battle. As she could see nothing, the noise seemed far removed from her, a world away, leaving her with the impression that they had escaped the danger.
“Are you all right?” she was asked by a quiet and reserved voice.
“I’m fine,” she answered in a small voice of her own. “Thank you.”
That prompted a smile from her rescuer. For some reason, looking at him struck a plaintive chord in her heart. Perhaps his pitiful appearance was due to his worn and weary features. Perhaps because his travels had left him in an exhausted state. Or because his unusually black hair was cropped so short.
If he wasn’t a monastic, then great misfortune must have hit close to home, leaving him in a profound state of mourning.
Enshi wanted to ask if he was all right. To harbor such an impulse struck her as altogether strange. The young man put his hand on Ritsu’s head and brushed off the clumps of grass and dirt. In all his bewilderment, Ritsu had forgotten to cry.
They were at the bottom of what appeared to be a gouged-out terrace. The low cliff face formed a wall on one side. On the other, the rocky terrain sloped downward at a steep angle, covered by the fall undergrowth. A short step below them was another shallow terrace. Enshi could make out a large animal lying there in the tall grass.
Two people with kijuu.
“Are you with that woman?” Enshi asked.
The young man nodded. He directed his concerned expression at the cliff face. At some point, the angry echoes and retorts stopped. Amidst the falling dusk, the birds stopped singing. Only the sound of the autumn wind rustling through the grass remained.
What happened to them? Enshi wondered with a pang of unease. She examined the cliff face to the left and right. To one side was a surmountable jumble of rocks. Taking Ritsu’s hand, she carefully climbed to the top and peered over.
In the distance she saw the woman and Kouryou running toward her. She didn’t spot any kijuu or highwaymen. No, bodies were sprawled hither and yon in the underbrush. Their faint moans and writhing about meant they weren’t dead. There were fewer of them than she remembered. The rest must have run off.
Her feelings of relief at once clashed with a profound sense of unease.
She’d always thought of Kouryou’s amiability, his love of people in general, as his strong point. He didn’t get upset when treated unreasonably during their travels. When caught up in a quarrel, he never once raised his voice. Outward appearances suggested that he was anything but the sort of man who could calmly turn aside the blustering threats of the highwaymen, let along defeat them in combat.
Kouryou approached the tall woman. Enshi heard him ask, “Are you all right?”
She heard her reply as well. “I’m fine. You’re not injured, are you?”
“Not at all. I see you helped out my companion. You have my gratitude.”
Listening to Kouryou’s cheerful voice, Enshi hoisted herself the rest of the way up and crouched in the underbrush. Kouryou didn’t appear the slightest bit flustered or out of sorts. Not at all like someone who’d been ambushed by a gang of highwaymen and was lucky enough to escape with his life. More like it was all in a day’s work and nothing that terribly difficult either.
“No need to thank me,” she said with an equally unruffled demeanor. You got dragged into trouble of our making. Sorry about that.”
“I gathered they were tracking you. What about your friend?”
“He’s waiting for me. So you noticed us?”
“Ah,” said Kouryou, a smile in his voice. “I noticed an odd bunch coming down the slope, doing their best to stay out of sight. I figured they were chasing down someone or something. Then I saw you heading into the forest. Too bad we couldn’t stay out of sight too. But I thought we might draw them off.”
“In that case, you saved us.”
“Naw. With a mother and her kid in tow, pretty reckless on my part. You helped her get away. Thanks again.”
What is this? Enshi wondered with growing apprehension as she slowly pushed forward. The scene before her cast off a strange aura, leaving her with the feeling that bad things were about to happen. The highwaymen hadn’t escaped Kouryou’s attention. That explained his curious behavior. And yet he hadn’t run away.
“Is that an iron flute?” the woman said, indicating Kouryou’s flute. “The first time I’ve seen one in action.” She handed him a small object. “One of your throwing knives. You appear acquainted with concealed weapons.”
Kouryou blinked in surprise. Dumbfounded, Enshi stepped out of the tall grass. Kouryou noticed her, turned, and greeted her with a broad smile.
“You’re okay? Not injured?”
Enshi shook her head. The tumult of events finally catching up with him, Ritsu started to whimper. Enshi drew him closer.
“Ritsu didn’t get hurt, did he?”
Enshi again silently shook her head. She walked toward Kouryou. She couldn’t quell that sense of disquiet. Or her inexplicable fear. What was an “iron flute”? Or a “throwing knife”? The woman called them “concealed weapons.” What were those? And what was Kouryou doing with them?
Turning these thoughts over in her head, she heard a faint swishing sound behind her. The tall grass parted, revealing the young man from before.
“Ah, I apologize,” the woman said, as Kouryou craned his head to the side. “My traveling companion,” she said to Kouryou. She brushed past Enshi and ran up the boy. That was when Enshi noticed she was missing one arm.
The woman stood in front of the boy, blocking him from Enshi’s view, and whispered in his ear. Kouryou observed them suspiciously, his eyes flitting back and forth from the woman to the young man.
Enshi drew alongside him. What’s going on? she was about to ask him when his countenance completely changed. He ignored Enshi completely and rushed over to the woman and the young man.
Kouryou spoke to them. Then cast a sharp look back at her. The expression his face was one she had never seen before, an expression that closed off human contact, as if an unbridgeable gulf had opened up between them.
“Enshi, go on to the next town.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t accompany you any further.”
In that moment, Enshi knew that time had come. She’d always known it would. But why today—a day like today portending the end of autumn? No nearby village would take them in. They’d just been attacked by highwaymen and evening was upon them.
Kouryou took a purse from his pocket and pressed it into her hands. “This should be enough to tide you over.”
Enshi couldn’t find the words. She stood there in stunned silence, unable to accept what he was offering.
Kouryou suddenly raised his head. “Watch out!”
He directed the warning at the young man and woman behind Enshi. Enshi followed his gaze and turned barely in time to see the young man lurch forward.