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Shikanoko, unable to sleep, racked by pain and fever, walked day and night through the Darkwood. His flesh alternately froze and burned; it did not seem to belong to him. He floated outside his body, watching it sweat and shiver, wondering why it still clung to life. Often he hallucinated. The dead seemed to walk alongside him, haranguing and accusing him. Once he heard the horses’ shrill neighing, and did not know whether to run to them or hide from them. His weapons, and the bag holding the broken mask and Kiyoyori’s sword, grew heavier. One day he simply let his own sword and the bow and quiver fall to the ground. He could not imagine ever using them again. The following day he was tortured by the smell of death. I am rotting away, he thought. It is all over. He leaned against the smooth trunk of a young beech tree, and then half-fell, half-slid down it until he was sitting in the dried leaves at its foot. The forest, in high summer, reverberated around him with bird calls and insect cries. Once he had loved that sound, had known every bird. Now it was an unpleasant clamor that made his head ache.
He had buried his head in his arms, but now a sudden strange sound, a kind of rough bark, made him look up. A crafted animal, a sort of wolf, stood before him. He saw the flash of its lapis blue eyes and the dull gleam of its cinnabar lips. The clarity of the hallucination and his fever filled him with despair.
Then the false wolf spoke in a thick, halting voice. “Welcome home,” it said, and Shika knew where he was and where the stench of rot and decay came from. It was over a year since he had ridden away with Akuzenji, the King of the Mountain, but now he had come back, to the mountain sorcerer, Shisoku.
It watched him struggle to his feet and then turned and padded stiffly away. He followed it, across the stream, past the carvings, the drying skins, the piles of bones, the live and dead animals, to the hut beneath the paulownia tree.
It stopped in front of the door. “Master!” it called. The vowels in its speech were clear, but it had trouble with some consonants: Ma-er!
Shisoku came out of the hut, shading his eyes with one hand.
“Shikanoko? Why have you come back? What have you done?”
Shika dropped the bag as Shisoku approached him. It lay on the ground like a dead bird, the hilt of the sword protruding from it.
“What is this? Whose sword was this? Nothing should be put in the same bag as the mask! Where is the mask?”
“It is broken,” Shika heard himself say.
“Aaargh!” Shisoku screamed like the mother of a dead child. “It cannot be broken. No human power can hurt it. How did it happen?”
He drew the two pieces out and wept over them.
Shika tried to explain. “It was the horses, they attacked me; not their fault, my fault.”
Shisoku’s face was distorted by rage and grief. Without saying another word he rushed back into the hut. Shika sank to the ground. His teeth clashed against each other as the fever sent violent shudders through him.
“Are you sick?” the false wolf said. “Master, he’s sick.”
“Let him die,” Shisoku called from inside. “He destroyed my gift, my creation. All the power of the forest could have been his, and he threw it away.”
The false wolf called again. “Master, help him!” and it began to lick Shika’s face with a tongue that felt human.
The sorcerer appeared again. “How extraordinary,” Shika heard him say. “The creature feels sorry for him. Maybe I should, too. Yes, I suppose I must.” He knelt next to Shika and felt his forehead, then, none too gently, examined the broken arm.
While Shika wept tears of pain, Shisoku disappeared and then, after what seemed like an eternity, was again kneeling beside him, making him drink some potion. It dulled his senses enough for Shisoku to be able to align the ends of the broken bone.
He longed for sleep, for oblivion, but every time he closed his eyes he believed he was dead and in Hell, burning in fire, pierced by swords, knives, arrows, and thorns, tormented by visions of demons and unquenchable thirst. He saw, over and over again, the horses’ huge teeth as they tore into him, and his body arched and twisted as he felt again the hammerlike blows of their hooves.
Liquid poured from his body, both sweat and tears, the waters of remorse.
At one stage he dreamed Lady Tora came to him. “Are you alive or dead?” he tried to ask her, but she laid her cool fingers against his burning lips and silenced not only speech but thought, too.
Then finally he slept, maybe for days. All that time the false wolf did not leave his side.
When he woke, he was inside the hut; he heard Shisoku say, “It has become attached to him. It’s the first time something like that has happened. I did not expect it. Even I have never inspired affection in my creations.”
“You are a greater sorcerer than you think,” a woman replied. Shika turned his head slightly and saw it was indeed Lady Tora. She went on, “Perhaps it is because you bestowed the power of speech on it. How did you achieve that?”
Shisoku laughed. “I gave it the tongue I cut from a human head, and I built speaking cords from gossamer and sinews.”
“And the head? Whose was that?”
“There have been plenty of dead between Miyako and Minatogura in the last year. This was a Kakizuki warrior who fled into the forest and died of his wounds. I came upon him while he was still fresh enough to use. That’s his skull on the wall.”
Shika could see the new white skull grinning vacantly. Next to him the false wolf whined.
“Shikanoko is awake,” Lady Tora said.
They both looked in his direction. Their shapes were outlined against the flames of the fire and the candles around the altar. He saw the huge swell of Tora’s belly and remembered what she had told him, that she would give Kiyoyori more sons. Whoever’s child it was, it was very close to birth.
“Shisoku was extremely angry with you,” Lady Tora said, “but he has forgiven you now.”
“I have?” the hermit queried.
“Either you have or you soon will. But Shikanoko should tell us what happened. See if you can get up,” she said to him.
He struggled to his feet and, leaning on Shisoku and Lady Tora, went outside. They led him to the paulownia tree and, sitting between them in its shade, he related everything, from the blinding of Sesshin to their flight into the Darkwood, their capture by his uncle Sademasa, who handed them over to the monk Gessho, the knowledge Sesshin had passed over to him, the winter spent at Ryusonji with the Prince Abbot.
“There was an uprising,” he said. “Well, it was started by the Prince Abbot, who dispatched his men to arrest the Crown Prince, but afterward it was said that Momozono rebelled against his father. He died, but his son escaped. I was sent to find him and bring his head back to the capital. I caught up with him, and Akihime, the Autumn Princess, on the way to Rinrakuji.”
“Ah,” Lady Tora said. “Now I begin to understand.”
“I killed two men who were about to violate her and the young Emperor, for he truly is the Emperor, you know. Everything recognizes him. I had two werehawks with me and they knew him at once. I called them Kon and Zen. Zen tried to fly back to Ryusonji and Kon killed him. We rode on toward Rinrakuji, but we were stopped at a crossroads by a spirit. It was Lord Kiyoyori.”
“So he is dead?” Tora said, in a small voice.
“I called him back,” Shika said, remembering the immense power that he had drawn on, a power that had led him into pride and arrogance and betrayed him. “His spirit entered the unborn foal within the body of my mare, Risu.”
“He drove the horses to attack you?” Lady Tora said.
“Yes, and that is how the mask was broken.”
He fell silent, and then said, “The sword is Kiyoyori’s. It is beyond repair, too.”
“Nothing is beyond repair for Shisoku,” Tora said. “Even if the results are sometimes unexpected, like this false wolf that has attached itself to you.”
It must recognize my falseness, Shikanoko thought. We are two of a kind. But his confession was not finished yet.
“We went to Akuzenji’s old hut. I was planning to bring them here to hide them.”
“The last place you would expect to find the Emperor of the Eight Islands,” Shisoku muttered.
Shika went on steadily, “But being in the hut, alone with the Autumn Princess, who I thought was the one meant for me, I put on the mask and found myself under the Prince Abbot’s sway. I blame only myself. I thought I was all powerful…”
“Aha!” Shisoku said. “He could teach you many things, but he could not teach you brokenness.”
Shika wished he would stop interrupting. Every time he had to start again it was harder.
“The Prince Abbot told me to do what I liked with her. I did. But she was to become a shrine maiden. She fled during the night. In the morning he told me to kill Yoshimori, and I was on the point of doing it, when the werehawk and the horses attacked me. When I came to, I was alone and the mask was broken.”
“The gods must have been enraged against you both,” Tora said.
After a few moments Shika said, “The werehawk, Kon, was turning gold. I remember seeing the sun on its plumage.”
“It must be transforming into a houou,” Shisoku said. “It is the sacred bird that appears in the land when the ruler is just and blessed by Heaven.”
“That must be Yoshimori. I have to find him and restore him to the throne.”
“This is a concern of warriors and noblemen,” Shisoku said. “Leave them to it and become a mountain sorcerer like me.”
“I was a warrior first, long before I became a sorcerer,” Shika replied. “Restore the mask for me, and the sword, and, when they are ready, I will begin my search for Yoshimori.”
“Nothing will change until your power matches the Prince Abbot’s,” Lady Tora said. “You are going to have to confront him and overcome him physically and spiritually. At the moment you can do neither. You have no men, no followers, not even a horse. In your first challenge to him, you failed. He forced you to make a terrible mistake, from which you may never recover. The horses and the werehawk, which should have been your allies, turned against you. You have a lot to undo and even more to learn.”
“How long will it take you to repair the mask and the sword?” Shika asked Shisoku.
“When you are ready they will be ready,” the old man replied grudgingly.
“Will it be days or weeks?”
“More likely years,” said the sorcerer.
“I can’t wait that long,” Shika cried, his impatience signaling he was recovering.
Lady Tora said, “There will be plenty to occupy you. As well as all you have to learn, you have to bring up my sons.”
“That will teach you something,” Shisoku murmured.
* * *
“The children cannot come into the world here,” Lady Tora said, “in the midst of Shisoku’s wayward magic, all these bones, skins, and transmogrification.”
“Certainly not,” Shisoku agreed. “Childbirth, especially involving one of the Old People, is completely disruptive and would unleash all kinds of uncontrollable forces, though possibly I could use some of those to repair the mask, so don’t go too far away.”
“Shikanoko must help me build a dwelling,” she said.
The Old People … where had he heard that before? Then Sesshin’s words crystalized in his mind. Just after he had transferred the nugget of power into Shika’s mouth he had said, From five fathers five children will be born. Find them and destroy them. They will be demons. She is one of the Old People.
The words haunted him as, under her instructions, he built a small hut on the north side of the clearing, facing south. He cut the wood, from sweet-smelling maples and strong holm oaks, with Shisoku’s sharp-edged axe and saw.
Shika had never built anything before, and like most of Shisoku’s endeavors, the results were not quite what was expected, but he liked the process of hewing the wood and shaping it into a human dwelling. It was like making bows and arrows, a kind of magic in itself, turning what the forest gave into something that had not existed before. When it was finished, and thatched with susuki reeds, it looked very pleasing.
Shisoku treated the tools as if they were children or servants. He never took them down from their place on the wall without asking their permission or put them back without thanking them. Shika saw how everything in his world was connected, how he knew intimately all the unseen strands and interstices, and how his power came from that knowledge, his ability to unravel and reconnect.
At the time when the silkworms began to spin their cocoons, Lady Tora also began to spin. Shika did not see where the threads came from, perhaps the gossamer that the morning mist turned into bright jewels, mixed with the soft underbelly fur of wolf and fox, or from the long tendrils of wisteria and bryony, seeds of milkweed and dandelion, delicate and powerful strands of root and sinew of bark, everything pliable and tensile that could be turned into yarn.
From this she wove five cocoons, soft on the inside and hard on the outside, and hung them from the rafters of the hut. One morning, it was clear that each held some kind of egg.
Shika did not witness their birth nor did he hear any of the cries of pain that usually accompany childbirth. Lady Tora seemed exhausted. She did not want him near her, but lay all day without moving. From the door of the hut he could smell a distinctive odor of blood and egg yolk. At dusk, she asked Shika to bring water and rags and wait outside while she washed herself.
Afterward, she gave him the bowl, saying, “Give this to Shisoku. It is full of power.”
Her voice was faint, her face pale, and she seemed to have been drained of something essential. Over the next few days, while the creatures in the cocoons grew, she faded.
“My work on earth is achieved,” she told Shika when he tried to urge her to eat.
“Does she mean to die?” he asked the sorcerer.
Shisoku pursed his lips and then said reluctantly, “It is the way of the Old People.”
“Who are the Old People?”
“Sometimes they are called the Spider Tribe. They are the ones who were here before.”
“Before when?” Shika said.
“Before people like you came from Silla, with your swords and your horses, your princes and your emperors.”
“I have never heard of them!” A suspicion came to him. “Are you one of them?”
“My grandmother was. She died when my father was born, from a cocoon like this. His father raised him in the forest, as we will have to raise these children. They will not be like ordinary children.”
“Will they be demons?” Shika asked with a sort of dread.
Shisoku smiled. “Not demons, just different.”
Shika had to ask. “And me? Am I one?”
“Because you came here at the right time? Because you were able to become the deer’s child? I wondered sometimes, and so did Tora. But we did not know of you, and there are so few left, we know every one. Maybe there is some blood mixed in you. Maybe you were just lucky.”
“Or unlucky,” Shika said quietly.
“That, too,” Shisoku agreed. “Did you ever cross paths with a tengu?”
Shikanoko was silent for a moment.
“When I was a child, I vaguely remember something, but perhaps it was a dream. Why?”
“When you first came I thought I discerned some tengu influence in your life.”
“In my dream, if that’s what it was, my father played a game of Go with a tengu. He lost the game, his life, and Ameyumi, his bow. He left me hidden in the grass, but the tengu flew overhead and they saw me. I remember their beaks and their wings.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” the sorcerer said. “That could explain a lot.”
* * *
A few days later Lady Tora called them into the hut. The creatures had grown into human-looking infants, now too big for the cocoons, which were beginning to tear as the children struggled and pushed with their hands and feet.
“Shouldn’t we help them get out?” Shika said.
“No, they must do it alone, so we know who is the first and strongest.”
It seemed as though two would emerge at once, and even before the final rip of the silky fabric, they appeared to be racing against each other. They grew under Shika’s eyes, and by the time the first child stood before them he was the size of a two-year-old, wobbling on uncertain legs like the young animals of the forest.
“You shall be called Kiku,” Lady Tora said. “It means Listen. You will hear everything. Because you were the first to emerge you will be the strongest and the cleverest.”
Almost immediately the second child was on his feet, looking around with inquisitive, unafraid eyes.
“Your name is Mu,” his mother said. “Both Nothingness and Warrior. You will exist between the two. No one will see you. It is your fate always to strive to be first, but you will never overtake Kiku.”
There was something enchanting about them. They were appealing, like fawns or baby monkeys.
“Come,” Shika said, and took a boy in each arm. Mu’s pressure on his broken arm caused only the slightest ache. It was almost completely healed.
The third child crawled from the cocoon and Lady Tora gave him the name Kuro, Darkness, and told him he would walk alone.
“He will be like me,” Shisoku said, as he held him on his knee.
There was a short lull as the two remaining children struggled, with more difficulty, to emerge. The others watched, with no apparent emotion beyond curiosity. Shika felt the warmth of Kiku’s and Mu’s bodies as they rested with complete trust against him. They were beautiful beings, with thick black hair and slender limbs. He thought of the five fathers whose seed had combined to make them: Akuzenji, Kiyoyori, Sesshin, Shisoku, and himself. It was quite impossible for him to consider killing them.
One of the remaining two came free and crawled out, limp and exhausted. “Your name is Ima, Now,” Lady Tora said. “You will be a servant to your brothers, you will never know envy or disappointment.” She embraced him for a moment before giving him to Shisoku.
“And it is your fate to be last,” she said to the final child. He was noticeably smaller than the others and did not stand and walk immediately, but crawled on all fours, like a blind puppy. “Your name will be Ku. You will love all animals and they will love and trust you. You will follow your brothers like a dog.”
* * *
As Tora grew weaker, she said she craved nature, the warm air on her skin, the dappled shade, the murmur of the stream and the sounds of birds and insects, the night sky and the stars. Delivering the children had made her gentle, as though her hardness and fire had all drained into them.
At her request, Shisoku took a clear amber jewel from the altar and placed it on her chest. Shika carried her outside, where she lay for several days, neither eating nor drinking, but seemingly at peace. The children played around her, growing visibly every day.
“How did you escape from Matsutani?” Shika asked, one morning. “We all thought you died in the fire.”
“I will burn,” she replied, “but then was not the right time. I realized what Kiyoyori’s wife might do; I would have done the same, or worse. I left then, but a part of myself—we call it the second self—remained behind long enough to fool anyone watching and make them believe I was still inside. I came to Shisoku, my mission complete. I had the gift of five men within me: the sorcerer, the bandit, the sage, the warrior, and the youth who is or will be all these things—as will be my sons, my little tribe. I did not know that you would return, but, now you have, I see I can entrust them to you.”
“Which one is mine?” Shika asked. They both turned their eyes to them.
“They are all mingled, so they are all yours. They’re beautiful, don’t you think? I am glad I chose handsome men like you and Kiyoyori.”
Shika saw how her face and voice changed as she spoke his name.
“What will happen to the lord’s spirit?” he said.
“I don’t know. When is it time for the foal to be born? Unless you can find your horses again, we will never know.” After a moment she said, “I really loved Kiyoyori—in the way you people love each other, and we, not so much. I had never felt that before. I should be able to pass away without regret, as easily as the leaf falls from the tree in autumn, but the idea of never seeing him again, in whatever form, fills me with sorrow. I cling to life for his sake. This is what love does to you, Shikanoko. See how the false wolf grows more real every day, because it has become attached to you. It shivers at your approach and wags its tail at the sound of your voice. It has made you its master, it lives for your affection. But, as your saints teach and we have always known, attachment enslaves you. Only those free from it see the world as it really is and have power over themselves and all things.”
“I will never have that,” he said in a low voice. “I cannot forget Akihime. I am tormented by love for her and terrible remorse that I betrayed her. I feel I must leave this place and search for her and Yoshimori. I have vowed to restore him to the Lotus Throne. How can I do that if I have to care for five children?”
Tora had closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun. She spoke so quietly he had to bend closer to hear her.
“Be patient. Teach the children how to be human, so they can pass in the world. Look after them well. When they are grown, they will help you in your quest.”
He thought her breathing stopped then, but he could not be sure. He felt heat glow from her and saw the rays of the sun had hit the jewel on her chest and ignited her robe. The children stopped their play and stood around, staring with their expressionless eyes. The flames grew quickly and in a moment had engulfed her, as though she were no more than dried grass. Nothing remained of her, no skull or bones, just the ash that Shisoku gathered up and placed in a carved box in front of the altar. The boys did not seem to miss her or to grieve, and even Shika, who had grieved so much, did not know how to teach them.
* * *
Shisoku took the blood and other fluids from childbirth and spread them over the two broken halves of the mask. He bound the pieces together with what was left of the strands of the cocoons. They covered the face like a spider’s web, silver and gray against the lacquer. He said many spells to protect it anew and placed it on the altar. When Shika knelt before it he thought he could hear tiny sounds as the edges knitted together, as had the bones in his arm.
Next Shisoku turned his attention to the ruined sword. Despite the heat, he built up the fire until the embers glowed white. He sent the boys, who were now the size of five-year-olds, out into the forest to the warm, sandy spots where snakes shed their skins. They found several dry, papery patterned skins, and Kuro, who already showed an affinity with all poisonous creatures, brought back a live adder. Shisoku showed him how to hold its head and milk its venom. The skins were added to the fire, and the venom to the molten steel.
Shisoku killed the adder and skinned it carefully, putting the skin aside to bind the hilt, after the scorched mother-of-pearl had been removed. The steel was hammered and folded over and again, cooled in the clear mountain water, reheated, cooled again. Mu in particular was fascinated by the process and followed every step closely.
The essence of the snake was absorbed into the blade and Shisoku named it Jato, the snake sword. He would not let Shika touch it, but placed it outside in the cleft of two rocks. He tied a white straw rope around the rocks.
“The elements must temper it,” he said. “And we must let it choose whether or not to come to your hand.”
None of the boys spoke much although they understood everything that was said to them. They were thin, with slender limbs, and were always hungry, eating voraciously to fuel their rapid growth. Their favorite food was meat, and Shika went hunting every day to bring back rabbits and squirrels, sometimes wild boar, though he never killed deer. The skins were cleaned and dried to make winter clothes, but in the heat of late summer the boys went naked. They fought all the time, testing one another’s strength and agility and endurance of pain, but at night they slept in a tumbled heap, like puppies.
One evening Shika saw Kiku seem to divide into two people, spontaneously, as though he had no idea what he was doing. He realized it was the second self that Lady Tora had told him about. Almost at the same time, Mu vanished from his sight and reappeared a few moments later on the other side of the stream. These abilities were innate; he could teach them nothing about them, nor could Shisoku. Instead both shared their own particular skills.
Shika fashioned poles and instructed them in the basic moves of sword fighting. He made small bows and showed them how to shape arrows. They trapped birds and collected the feathers for the fletches, and learned how to string and draw a bow.
Shisoku demonstrated how to forge sharp knives and other weapons, and he taught them all the poisons that could be found in the forest, as well as the snakes, aconite and bryony, the kernels of certain nuts, toadstools and other fungi.
Ku, as his mother had predicted, loved the animals, the fake ones as much as the real, but Kiku and Kuro were indifferent to them, though they teased the false ones mercilessly, tripping up the water carriers, jumping out at the guard dogs. The real animals snapped at them, but the false ones never did. They had been created without aggression. But one day Kiku came bleeding from a wound on the cheek.
“Your wolf bit me.” It was the longest sentence Shika had ever heard from him.
He cleaned the bite, saying, “That will teach you to leave him alone.” He realized he had spoken of the wolf as him, as though it were truly alive. Tora had said it was love that made the wolf become more real, but he had also become aggressive in a way the other false animals were not. Now that the wolf was truly alive he seemed to need a name, and Shika decided to call him Gen, which might mean either Reality or Illusion.
Shisoku had still not given permission for Shika to touch the sword Jato when, in the eighth month, a typhoon swept up from the southwest. The wind tore trees up by the roots and threw them down. Rain fell from the sky like a river. The stream roared through the night and raged across the clearing. Many of the false animals were swept away, their empty skins caught on tree branches, their skulls washed up on the bank miles away.
At the height of the storm, Shisoku said, “Jato is outside.”
Shika went out. The wind seized him and shook him. A false dog flew past his head and crashed into a tree. He could see the rock where Jato lay, but it was already almost submerged. He thought he saw the sword gleam beneath the rushing water and struggled toward it, fighting the wind, but the current dragged it loose. It disappeared with a flash of steel, a water snake in the flood.
When the wind and the rain abated, and the stream returned to its normal size, Shika and the boys searched the valley, but the sword had vanished.
“It must be buried in mud and silt,” he said to Shisoku after another day of fruitless searching.
“When it wants to be found it will be,” Shisoku replied.
It made Shika sad and angry. He had called Kiyoyori’s spirit back from the gates of Hell, he had rescued the ruined sword. Now both had vanished into the Darkwood, as if they had not thought him worthy of them.
At the end of the ninth month, Shisoku pronounced the mask healed. Although it was not perfect as it had been and one antler remained broken, it had different powers, attained through suffering and loss. Shika put it away in the seven-layered brocade bag, reluctant to face the Prince Abbot as he knew one day he must, and, in the calm autumn days, began to work at the fire, helped by Shisoku and Mu. They forged a new sword and called it Jinan, Second Son, and a helmet mounted with iron antlers, one broken in the same way as the mask’s, and armor, bound with leather lacing, dyed with madder and indigo. It seemed there was nothing Shisoku did not have stored away somewhere, and what was not stored he could find in the forest.
“Are you planning to go to war with someone?” he asked Shika when the armor was finished.
“With my uncle first. The boys cannot just grow up in the forest. They need a home, they need learning, far more than I can teach them. I am going to take back Kumayama. After that who knows? Maybe Kuromori and Matsutani. Maybe I will be like Akuzenji, become a bandit and control trade as King of the Mountain. Then I will be able to provide for the boys.”
“They are not ordinary boys,” Shisoku said dubiously. “You are not going to be able to turn them into warriors.”
“Maybe not. I will turn them into something very useful to myself, though,” said Shikanoko. “I suppose I’ll need a bow, too.”
“I will make you one,” the sorcerer promised. “Do you remember what Ameyumi looked like?”
“Only that it was enormous and no one could draw it but my father.”
But it seemed Shikanoko remembered more than he thought, or Shisoku somehow drew the knowledge from hidden memories. When the bow was finished, it felt the way his father’s bow had, in his hand. They named it Kodama: Echo.
“Will Ameyumi ever be found?” he wondered aloud.
“It will, but not by you,” replied the mountain sorcerer.
Copyright © 2016 by Lian Hearn Associates Pty Ltd.