4-9 The awful pain brought her back to life.
As soon as her eyes opened, she checked her arm. There was the sword that had stabbed her. At first she didn’t understand what she was looking at. The sword stood erect, hilt pointing towards skyward.
Seconds later the pain brought her back to her senses. The sword pinned her right hand to the earth, the slender blade buried deeply through the palm. Throbbing pain radiated up her arm and into her head. Gently she tried moving her arm. The pain tearing through her hand made her scream.
Swallowing the dizziness and pain, taking care not to make the pain in her hand any worse, she sat herself up. With her trembling left hand she seized the hilt of the sword. She closed her eyes, clenched her teeth together, yanked out the sword. Pain convulsed her body.
She cast the sword aside, pressed her wounded hand to her chest, rolled on the ground over to where the beast had fallen. She didn’t cry out. The intensity of the pain was enough to make her physically sick.
Writhing in agony, she grouped for the jewel and tore it free of the cord. She gritted her teeth and pressed the jewel hard against her hand. Groaning, her body twisted into a ball.
The magic of the jewel saved her. The pain abated a bit. After a few minutes more, holding her breath, she could bear to sit up again. She applied the jewel to the wound, cautiously tried to move her fingers, but couldn’t feel anything below the wrist. She continued to force her right hand around the jewel.
Rocking back and forth, she hugged her hand against her body. She cracked open her eyes and looked up at the sky. The red-stained clouds were still there. She hadn’t been unconscious that long.
Who was that woman? Why did she do this to her? So many things were racing through her mind, but she was in no condition to think about anything. After searching around some more, she found the sword. She took hold of the hilt and hugged the sword and her right hand to her chest. For a while she stayed curled up that way.
Not a long time had passed when she heard a voice say, “Oh . . . ”
She looked in the direction of the voice. A small child was standing there. The girl looked over her shoulder and yelled, “Mom!”
A woman hurried towards them at a small run.
Youko’s expression said that the child had not bothered her. Her mother seemed an honest type. Her appearance betrayed her low economic status. She carried a large pack on her back.
Similar looks of concern rose to the faces of mother and child as they ran toward her. They jumped over the bodies of the dead beasts, grimacing with distaste.
Youko couldn’t move. She could only watch helplessly from where she lay. They’ll help me, she thought, for only a moment, before more anxiety overcame her. This was one time when she really needed help. The worst of the pain had subsided, but had hardly disappeared. All her strength was exhausted. She doubted she could even get up a second time.
So she felt more suspicion than relief. It was all too good to be true.
“What’s going on? Are you all right?”
The girl touched Youko’s face with her small hand. Her mother put her arms around her and helped her sit up. For some reason, Youko found the body-warm touch of the woman’s clothing repulsive.
“What in the world happened to you? You were attacked by these beasts? Are you badly injured?”
As she spoke, the woman’s attention was drawn to Youko’s right hand. She let out a small cry. “What is this? Hold on.”
She searched in the sleeve of her kimono and extracted a strip of cloth the size of a hand towel. She used it to bind Youko’s hand. The girl took the small pack off her own back, took out a bamboo container, and held it out to Youko.
“Sir, you want some water?”
Youko hesitated. She couldn’t shake her sense of unease. The canteen had been in the girl’s pack so it must be for the girl’s own use. There shouldn’t be any poison in it. And the canteen didn’t look like it had been tampered with in the meantime.
Having reassured herself, she nodded. The girl removed the stopper and with her two small hands held the canteen to Youko’s lips. The lukewarm water flowed down her throat. In a stroke her breathing eased considerably.
The mother said, “You’re probably hungry.”
At the moment her stomach did not feel empty, but Youko knew she was starving so she nodded.
“When’s the last time you had anything to eat?”
Youko couldn’t be bothered to come up with a number so she remained silent.
“Mom, there’s some fried bread.”
“No, no, that’d be no good. It wouldn’t stay down. What about something sweet?”
The child opened the mother’s pack. Inside were a variety of jars of different sizes. With a stick she drew out the thick syrup. Youko had seen people carrying these kinds of containers before. They were probably syrup peddlers.
“Here you go.”
Youko didn’t hesitate this time. She took the stick with her left hand. The syrup melted sweetly in her mouth.
“Are you traveling somewhere? What happened to you?”
Youko didn’t answer. She didn’t want to tell the truth and it would be too tiring to think up a lie.
“I dare say, you seem well enough for being attacked by youma. Can you stand up? The sun will be setting soon. There’s a village not far off, at the foot of the mountain. Can you walk that far?”
Youko shook her head. She meant to say that she didn’t wish to go to the village, but the woman took her to mean she could not move. She turned to the child and said, “Gyokuyou, run to the village and have someone come here. There’s not much time. As fast as you can.”
Youko sat up. “I’m okay.” She said to the mother and child, “I thank you both very much.”
She spoke brusquely, by way of turning down the offer. She managed to get to her feet and crossed the road to the steeply rising slope on the other side.
“Just a minute, where are you going?”
Youko didn’t know herself. So she didn’t answer.
“Wait. The sun is almost down. If you head into the mountains, you’ll die for sure.”
Youko slowly crossed the road. Her hand hurt with every step.
“Let’s go to the village.”
The grade here was quite precarious. Climbing the slope with only one hand, would take considerable effort.
“We’re traveling merchants. We’re going as far as Bakurou. You’ve nothing to fear from us. Let’s go to the village, shall we?”
Youko caught hold of a root growing out of the roadbed.
“Wait, what’s the hurry? Why aren’t you taking your condition seriously?”
Youko glanced back over her shoulder. The woman stared at Youko, her eyes wide with bewilderment, like the child immobilized by her consternation.
“Please, let me be. If I do go with you to the village, what will be waiting for me there?”
“What has that to do with anything? The sun is setting! You’re injured.”
“Yes, indeed. You’d better hurry. You have a small child with you.”
“Wait . . . ”
“I’m used to it. Thank you for the sweets.”
The woman looked at Youko in confusion. It was possible she was simply acting out of kindness. Or possibly not. Youko couldn’t know for sure which.
She started once more to climb the slope. Below her the child called out. She held out both hands towards Youko. In one hand was the bamboo canteen, in the other a teacup filled to the brim with the syrup.
“Take these. It wasn’t enough, what we gave you before.”
Youko looked to the mother. “But . . . ”
“It’s okay. Well, then, Gyokuyou.”
At her mother’s urging, the child reached out and placed the cup and canteen at Youko’s feet. She jumped down, ran back to where her mother was strapping on her pack.
Youko watched blankly as the child pulled on her own pack. She had no idea of how to respond. The mother and child glanced back at her many times as they descended the hill.
After they disappeared from view, Youko picked up the canteen and teacup. Her knee gave out and she sat down on the ground.
It’s better this way.
She couldn’t know for certain that they were acting out of the best of intentions. After arriving at the village, perhaps their attitude would have changed. Even if it didn’t, once they found out Youko was a kaikyaku she’d be hauled off to the county seat. As painful as it might be, she had to take precautions. She couldn’t trust anybody, couldn’t expect anything. The minute she got careless and naive she’d paid for it the hard way.
“They just might have helped you, you know?”
Again, that intolerable voice. Youko answered without turning around. “It may have been a trap.”
“Perhaps, but you won’t see that kind of help again.”
“It may have been no help at all.”
“Considering the state of your body and hand, will you make it through the night?”
“One way or another.”
“You better chase after them, no?”
“I’m fine here.”
“Little girl, you have gone and thrown away the first and last real chance you’ll ever get.”
Youko turned, sweeping wide with the sword. The monkey’s head was gone. Only it’s bright laughter remained, disappearing up the slope and into the underbrush.
Youko glanced back down the road. Dusk was falling. It began to rain, pebbling the road with small black spots.