The night was clear, the deep indigo sky scattered with stars, and the forest was still save for the whirring of insects. The dark air was broken by a piercing howl high in the mountain cliffs.
Far below in the valley Ashitaka turned his face towards the cave perched on the peak above.
He gave a quick glace to the midwife saddled behind him. “Hold on” he gasped before kicking his heels unto Yakul’s side. “Faster Yakul” he whispered “charge faster than any battle we’ve met.” This is the greatest battle we’ve ever met Ashitaka thought to himself and this time it wasn’t just one life that held his heart that was in danger but two.
The howling sounds turned to screeching cries the closer Yakul came to the cave mouth. Finally they reached the craggy entrance. Ashitaka jumped off his steed in one swift motion and turned to the midwife to help her down as she swung her medical satchel off Yakul’s saddle.
“Follow me” Ashitaka breathed, leading the woman up the rocks to the opening.
A shadow moved in the entrance and a monstrous white wolf appeared. “Do not be afraid” Ashitaka whispered, hearing the midwife draw a sharp breath behind her.
“Swift as a spirit of the forest” the youngest wolf nodded to the former prince, his eyes darted to the woman behind “It is known that we do not trust humans, my sister is wolf and human and more but tonight she has never been more human and so tonight for the first time we wolves will trust in a human woman.”
“You trust me” Ashitaka answered the brother.
“This is true” the wolf replied “but it has been long established now that you are more than human.”
The young man bowed his head in understanding and dashed unto the entrance ledge. Instantly his eyes shifted from the wolf to the source of a painful cooing noise emitting from the other end of the cave. He sprinted to the opening on the other side where San lay rolling slightly from side to side on her hips, her legs spread in an unnatural position, her arms shakily trying to push her more upright against her eldest brother’s furry neck.
“Ashitaka” the courage in San’s sweaty face was almost palpable as she set eyes on her other half.
“Forgive me, I’ve been gone too long my love.” He hushed, taking his wolf-girl’s hand and trying not to let fear creep into his voice.
“You had no way of knowing” she gasped “I was fine until I went hunting and I fell, I’m so foolish.”
“Never mind it now, San, your brother has already told me everything. I came as soon as I could, Yakul rides fast but he carries two.” Ashitaka glanced at the midwife who stood over them, taking note of the fear and confusion in her face. She clutched her bag tight and her eyes darted as San’s smaller brother padded through the cave and stood over the group in a concerned defensive stance. The eldest brother stayed where he was allowing San to flop against his side if she needed, his expression was sterner than that of his younger brother as he tried to convey a false calmness Ashitaka could see through.
“Your Lady Eboshi bids this of you” Ashitaka spoke to the midwife. “I know you are afraid but you need not be. I know nature and mankind cannot always live without caution but your Lady says she wants to make peace with the forest. It is not wrong for you to be cautious, you are human, but you are also a woman, a healer, and a giver of life. I remind you what you were before you came into Lady Eboshi’s service, I know you love her, and I tell you there is no better way to make peace than this. Cast your fears aside and please give life to my lady and my firstborn.”
Sora the midwife drew a sharp breath. She thought about Ashitaka, the strange wanderer who was beloved by every woman in the village, who wasn’t as gruff like all the other men she knew, who seemed mostly man but spent his time between the town and the forest. She didn’t trust the wolves who killed the only man she ever loved many years ago, but her life had taught her few men could be trusted anyway. Only women, Lady Eboshi most of all, for she had given her a new life. And below her now was the Princess Mononoke, a creature who might be mostly animal but there was a woman in there too, a woman who needed her.
Sora simply nodded in response to Ashitaka’s speech, bent over her charge and got to work. Ashitaka grasped San’s hand as the midwife checked her breathing. The princess snarled when the woman went to touch her belly.
“San” Ashitaka muttered a little sternly and gripped the wolf-girl’s hand tighter. She turned her face up towards him, panting softly and trying to let her body relax. Ashitaka gave the briefest of glances away to nod to the midwife to carry on before focusing all his attention back on San.
“What were you before you met Lady Eboshi?” San asked curiously.
“I worked in a brothel delivering the babies.” Sora moved her hands over San’s slightly noticeable bump and refused to meet the San’s eyes. “After their birth the brothel owners would give the new mothers a choice; they could stay in their employment and their newborn would be thrown out onto the streets or they could keep their new babe and they would have to take to the streets with them. They were dark days before Lady Eboshi.”
As Sora examined San she noticed the wolf-girl had a strong physique and her belly should’ve be much larger, she wasn’t far along at all and Sora knew the chances were not favourable. She didn’t want to admit it aloud but she knew in her heart she’d have to deliver now if they were going to catch the baby breathing.
“It’s time” Sora said and looked into San’s eyes for the first time. “I need you to push.”
San howled and shrieked mightier than ever before as Sora bent low over her body. The princess clenched Ashitaka’s hand so hard that her claws drew blood from his skin as a searing pain tightened and ached in the lower part of her body the more she pushed. She didn’t hear Sora giving her instructions to keep pushing harder, half the world seemed to melt away. San was mostly just aware of the pain but there was also the soft of her oldest brother’s furs pressed against her back, a breeze started up for the first time that long night, Ashitaka’s warm eyes and loving face were to the side of her vision, and passed him the first glimmer of dawn over the hills beyond the valley.
She let out another desperate howl and then stopped, the tightening sensation was gone, and then a moment later a different cry filled the forest air, a younger cry, the youngest cry there could be. San’s gaze was still fixed on Ashitaka but he was no longer sharing her gaze. His mouth was wide and his face in awe as his stared unblinking to the base of San’s feet.
San struggled up into a sitting position as fast as she could. “Let me see” she cried.
The midwife cradled in her arms a small squealing body, her skin was red, her soft legs and arms struggled to stretch out into the world around her and her face was thick with moisture. The midwife passed her hands over the little life form, checking how she fared.
“Give her to me” the wolf-girl grabbed her cub from the midwife’s hand, she didn’t want her being handled by a dirty human. San clasped her firstborn in her arms, holding her daughter tight to her chest. Her form was delicate but she breathed slow and deep gulps of the clear forest air and San could see she was already strengthening herself. A moment later she peeked open her dark eyes and let the world into her sight for the first time and was met with the gaze of her mother.
Cub or baby, human or wolf, it matters not to me San thought as she lost herself in her firstborn’s eyes you are mine, you are my daughter and you will be loved. She thought of the human parents she’d never known and her hatred for humanity was only strengthened. I will never give you up. Her gaze turned to Ashitaka, he’d stood to help the midwife and give San a moment but now he stood at the edge of the cliff watching the sun spill into the valley. Ashitaka was her hope. The binding between humanity and the forest. “We shall be better parents than we ever knew, I promise” San whispered and kissed her child’s forehead.
“Light” Ashitaka sighed observing the horizon before turning his head to smile at the two loves of his life.
San looked up at him, his whole body was now enclosed by the rising sun, streaming dazzling gold around his form and the cave and forest surrounding them.
“Yes” San gasped, flickering her gaze between her daughter and the dawn. “Ashitaka you are my light and you have given your light to me and with your gift we have created life. She is light itself to me and as Light she shall be known.”
Ashitaka came to her side and placed his hands over hers which held their newborn. He said nothing for in his princess’s eyes he saw that she understood that together as three they were light and life and they were everything that he lived for and held him to this earth. He kissed San and then he kissed his daughter.
Sora dampened a cloth with water and moved to put her hands on the baby but she caught San’s glare. “Here” she smiled awkwardly and passed the cloth to the wolf-girl.
San sponged her newborn clean and her daughter emitted her first happy giggling sounds as her mother dabbed at her skin. The princess felt the watchful gaze of the midwife and her eyes flickered to see Sora trying her best to kneel obediently opposite her without beaming with joy. San sighed remembering once more her hatred of humans but when she looked into Sora’s face her hatred cleared. When she was done she handed the cloth back to Sora and gave her a smile. “Thank you” she breathed “thank you for saving my Light.”
Sora nodded understandingly and begun to pack up her bag. “She is not as strong as her mother and father just yet” she told them timidly but there was a slight smile on his lips showing the relief she felt inside that both mother and babe had survived. “Handle her gently and feed her often. She is feebler than many I have delivered and she’s had a tough time coming into the world. But she is looking very well considering she’s so early and the more she gets used to her new environment the stronger she will grow.”
San nodded before Ashitaka helped Sora to her feet. “You may take your leave” he said “take Yakul, he knows the journey, he will guide you. I will stay and return to the village later.”
“Thank you” Sora replied and paused before asking Ashitaka “what should I tell the village?”
Ashitaka looked to his woman and babe thoughtfully and then turned to Sora. “You may tell Lady Eboshi that there is a new princess of the forest.”
Sora smiled and bowed.
When the midwife had departed the wolf brothers moved closer to see their new family member. Their little niece was not afraid of their sharp faces rather she bore an expression of wonder and intrigue and she even giggled when the eldest brother nuzzled close to her.
“We are proud of you” the eldest brother hushed to San “mother would be even prouder.”
“Always you are our baby sister to us” her second brother laughed “but ever since her passing you have been like a new mother to us too, I’m glad this day little sister, now you have found your own path.”
San nuzzled her face deep into each of her brother’s furs in turn as she clutched Light at her breast. “Thank you” she mumbled and then spoke a little louder so that her mate would overhear “You are right, I am a wolf-girl no more, now I am wolf-woman, wolf-mother.” She sighed “I will try for all this family to be as great as mother was to us, even though that is a hard burden to bare.”
“Do not fear” eldest brother reassured her “you are the chief of the wolves. You are as strong as our mother. Only yesterday you ran and hunted as always and now before the sun has fully reached the sky on this new day you have already brought fresh life to our tribe.”
San nodded and rubbed her cub’s soft skin against her own grizzled arms. Supporting Light on her breast she sat up straight and moved one arm over shoulder to grasp at the furs that adorned her back. “Ashitaka, help me.”
He came and stood over her his arms were powerful but he held a gentleness and grace she had never seen in another human as he slowly helped her unclasp her fur cape from her back. Once undone San offered their daughter into Ashitaka’s arms for the first time.
Ashitaka balanced his child on his knee as he caressed her plush cheeks with one finger. When Light cooed happily at him his heart sweltered. He thought backed to the first time he cried in front of San in the days when he was no one. A tear slipped down his cheek now. San was his reason to keep on living, from the first day he’d set eyes on her and every day that passed since she’d brought new reason but this was something else. This was life, his creation out of his love her, this child was love in its purest form and the greatest reason to live. Ashitaka felt no shame in crying so openly.
He passed his daughter back into San’s arms as she wrapped Light into the wolf furs, passed from sibling to sibling and now to cub.
“Ashitaka, help me stand.” San commanded, clasping one palm into his and using her other hand to support her baby.
“Are you sure?” Ashitaka asked cautiously.
“I must” San answered and Ashitaka understood, he grasped her hand tight and put his other arm around and slowly helped her struggle to her feet with their baby in her arms.
With her body clutched around Ashitaka she took a step forward and then another until she reached the jutted outlook at the edge of the cave. Her brothers padded after her and together the five of them regarded the first light spreading across the valley, the mountains and young forest. Even though she felt strong enough to stand unsupported on her feet San held close to Ashitaka’s body, wanting to feel his form, the rhythm of his breathing and life thrumming through him.
She squeezed Light in her arms “I have never been more human yet I do not feel ashamed” she murmured and thought I am San the Princess Mononoke, guardian of the forest and chief of the tribe of wolves. “I love you, Ashitaka” San whispered, her face still transfixed on the rising sun.
He moved to turn his face towards her but before he could answer San let out a mighty howl. Her proud cry broke the morning silence and her brothers immediately followed with a more resounding call than her own. Together they announced to all the Deer God’s forest the coming of the new member of their tribe. From sprouting trees in the valley and mountain the Kodama rattled their heads in response to San, her mate, her brothers and her firstborn.