The low intonation of the sacred words murmured softly through the silence of the room, inflection dipping and leaping like the trickle of a stream over smooth stones. Soft light gathered in small, work-calloused hands, poised just above the pitiful form of a prostrate child on a dirt-packed floor. The hands hovered searchingly over the length of the boy's body- head to foot, foot to head-halting just above the center of the boy's stomach.
With gentle pressure the hands pushed down. The boy began to shudder.
The shudders grew quickly into convulsions that wracked his small frame, and a sound like the scream of wind whipping through a narrow valley filled the room. A shadow, writhing and twisting, seeped slowly up from the boy, lingering briefly above him before slipping out through the thatched roof of the small, crude hut.
The boy lay still once more, his face relaxing into untroubled slumber.
Kagome sighed softly, leaning back and placing her hands in her lap as the glow faded from them. She turned to the two pale countenances sitting at the small boy's feet, offering them a reassuring smile.
"He should be fine now. It was just an unsettled spirit making him sick. A little rest and he'll be right back to normal."
There was a rasping exhalation from the woman, the little boy's mother, that Kagome could only assume was relief. The man, the boy's father, solemnly placed both of his palms before him on the floor and bowed until his forehead nearly touched the dirt.
"We thank you deeply, Miko-sama. You are welcome to anything in our possession as payment."
"No, no. It's not necessary. I'm glad I was able to help," Kagome protested, standing and dusting off her tattered red hakama. Slinging her longbow and arrows up over her shoulder, she bowed in return.
"If it's alright, I'll be back to check on him in a few days. I want to make certain that that spirit doesn't come back to bother him while he's still recovering."
"You're welcome anytime, Miko-sama," the wife spoke up, her smile infinitely grateful as only a mother's could be. "But the spirits certainly seem to be unsettled lately. My Taro is the third one you've had to take care of this month. I don't know what this village would do if we didn't have you to protect us."
Kagome's smile faltered for a moment. She readjusted the quiver on her shoulder self-consciously.
"It's very kind of you to say so…" she murmured, eyes downcast. "I should be going now, though. I promised Mama that I would help out in the fields today."
Bobbing a bow to the two, Kagome exited the hut quickly.
Clouds hung low and dark in the sky outside, as they had been wont to do for the past few months. The downpour would start soon, Kagome lamented to herself.
All of the rain they had been receiving had overflowed the banks of the river on which her small village was situated, drowning much of what had been a meager crop to begin with. Winter would be upon them soon and what little grain they had in reserve would be used up quickly. The village would be in no small amount of trouble if something was not done soon.
Kagome sighed. She had been turning the situation over and over in her head for nearly two months now, and she only ever seemed to find new worries to concern herself with. There were only two solutions that she had been able to come up with for all her sleepless nights, each of them implausible at best.
One would be to trade with a neighboring village for a supply of grain to last through the winter. Unfortunately her village had so little surplus of anything that it was unlikely that another village could be persuaded to trade, if that village even happened to have enough to spare.
Another obstacle in that plan would be the recent decimation of numerous villages by a horde of restless youkai. She and Kaede, the village's elder miko, had managed to erect a barrier strong enough to protect their own small village from the attacks, but many other villages with lesser spiritualists or none at all had been destroyed. That was what she had heard from the few merchants that had passed through the village, anyway. So there was no way of knowing how long it might take to even reach the closest village still standing.
The second option would be to make the long journey to the imperial court in Heian and beg for some sort of aid. But in addition to the time it would take just to get there, it would take even longer for the decision to be made as to whether or not aid would be granted. And even if it was, there was no telling what kind of payment would be asked of her village in return.
To top it all off the spirits and youkai had been restless for months, their agitation grating constantly on her spiritual sense. The horde that had swept through destroying villages was merely one extreme manifestation of their growing malcontent.
Kagome sighed again, a small frustrated huff, as one hand came up to press at her temple. Certainly she and Kaede had managed to protect the village, but where was their so-called Tennō when his subjects needed his help? Walled up in his grandiose palace and too busy with courtly affairs to concern himself with them, no doubt.
Or at least that was the way that Jii-chan had explained court life to be after having visited the court once in his youth. Kagome herself had never once encountered a courtier and had never had the time to venture much outside of her village, let alone anywhere near Heian.
The wind kicked up suddenly, sweeping up the slope atop which Kagome stood as the downpour began. The miko's eyes slid closed as she felt the cool drops trickle down her face, silently asking the kami what their reasons could possibly be for allowing this to happen to her village.
There was no response. There was never a response.
The rain continued to pour. All of her ever-growing worries clamored for attention in the darkness behind her eyelids. For a brief, choking moment Kagome could feel her future unfolding before her, long and dark and difficult.
Kagome drew in a deep breath, opening her eyes. One moment at a time. That was how she had to do this. That was how she was going to get them all through this.
Nodding to herself, she set off down the hill to begin checking the barriers.
After what felt like a small, damp eternity, Kagome finished her checks and began her slogging journey up the largest hill in the village through the raging downpour, on her way to the village's temple. Though "temple" seemed a gross exaggeration as far as the shabby little structure was concerned. It was more of an enlarged hut really, but with stronger thatching on the roof and slightly thicker walls. It was, however, all that her humble village could afford.
Kagome pushed the thick, coarse mat hanging in the doorway aside as she entered, ringing what water she could from her hair and trailing sleeves.
"Kaede-sama, I was just out checking the barriers and…" Kagome trailed off as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the room.
Kaede sat beside the fire pit in the center of the room, a cup of tea clutched between her rough, weathered hands. The good tea cups, Kagome noted absently.
But it was the stranger seated across from Kaede that froze Kagome's familiar greeting on her lips. He turned away from the fire to face her, a friendly smile gracing handsome features and a couple of fine gold rings in his right ear catching the light.
Kagome flushed in embarrassment. She realized simultaneously why Kaede had brought out the good teacups and that she looked like a living landslide, drenched and splattered with muck.
"Kagome, child," Kaede called, her rasping voice firm enough to shake Kagome from her stupor. "This is Shingon Miroku-sama. He is a houshi visiting us from the imperial court."
Prompted by Kaede's words, Kagome lowered herself gracefully down onto her knees in the doorway.
She bowed low, hoping the gesture would somewhat mitigate her bedraggled appearance.
"It is an honor to meet you, Houshi-sama," Kagome said formally, just as Kaede had taught her. "Please excuse my breach of manners and my…less than proper appearance. I was not aware that we would be receiving an esteemed guest today."
"Not at all, Kagome-chan," Miroku returned with a chuckle, surprising Kagome with the familiar address. "After all, any man who fails to appreciate a woman who looks quite so well as you do when wet is no man at all."
Kagome rose up from her bow, her expression twisting incredulously. The houshi continued to smile his blithe smile, as if he had not ever uttered an inappropriate word in his life. Kagome's eyes slid to meet Kaede's single good one in askance, but the old miko merely shook her head in a manner that said clearly she had expected nothing less.
"Come, child, sit," Kaede instructed, motioning for the younger miko to take the place beside her near the fire.
Kagome rose hesitantly and went to her, giving the grinning houshi a wide berth. He was very clean, she noted as she passed, mentally comparing his pale skin to the ever-begrimed skin of herself and the villagers.
His short, dark hair was tidy and pulled back into another fine looking gold ornament at the nape of his neck. His dark osode and deep violet kesa were also of some rich material, obvious even from a distance. All testament to the great wealth of the court, and a poignant reminder of the lack in her own little village.
Kagome realized that she had not quite managed to keep the bitter turn of her thoughts from her face as she sat down, alerted by the slight slip of the houshi's smile and Kaede's gentle grip on her shoulder. Quickly she schooled her face into civility and offered to make another pot of tea.
The houshi replied in the negative with equal civility, if a bit more warmth. In the silence that followed Kagome reminded herself firmly that the man in front of her was not the cause of her frustrations and did not deserve to deal with them.
"What business is it that takes you so far away from the capital, Houshi-sama?" Kagome asked, forcefully shucking off the tension she had caused in the room.
"I wish to investigate the recent spiritual disturbances that have been reported in this area," Miroku responded, though Kagome caught the quick look that passed between the houshi and Kaede. "The recent youkai attacks seem to have stirred things up even further, making my job of finding the source a bit more difficult than I had expected. But rest assured that I am doing everything within my power to prevent such a tragedy from recurring."
"Are you just passing through, then, on your way to one of the wrecked villages, Houshi-sama?" Kagome said. "I think they might require your aid more than us, after all, and they might be able to provide you with more information about them. The youkai were not able to enter our village."
Another furtive glance passed between the man and her mentor.
"Actually, Kagome-chan, I decided to visit this village precisely because it was not destroyed. I was curious as to what saved your village when several of the surrounding villages were completely leveled. Kaede-sama has been informing me that this small miracle can be attributed to you," Miroku explained, his look becoming oddly intent as it came to rest fully upon her.
"No, not at all," Kagome said, slightly discomfited. "I only helped a bit. Kaede-sama was the one who did most of the work. She is just too modest to say so."
"I'm far too old for modesty, child," Kaede interrupted dryly. "If it had been me I would have said so."
"You do have quite an aura, Kagome-chan," Miroku added, the sharpness still in his eyes. "I was able to sense it from quite a distance away, actually."
"Well…" Kagome faltered, at a loss with the gaze of both her mentor and the houshi now fixed on her. The feeling of missing something important hung irritatingly just above her like smoke from the fire.
Long moments passed filled only by the pattering of the rain against the hut and the slight crackle of the fire. Miroku and Kaede sipped their tea quietly, neither of them making any moves that Kagome could see to renew their silent communication. She was stuck with nothing but vague annoyance and a few half-formed suspicions.
At length Kaede set down her mug of tea and stood, the creaking of her old joints nearly audible.
"Well, Houshi-sama, if you will excuse us, I believe Kagome's original purpose in coming here was to request my assistance in reinforcing the village barrier. As I would like to accomplish that task before night falls, we must be going. Right, child?" she said.
"Ah, yes," Kagome said, recalling her initial intent suddenly.
She rose quickly and fetched a cloak hanging on the wall, knowing that Kaede’s old age left her vulnerable in weather the likes of which continued to rage outside. Kaede nodded gratefully, wrapping the rough garment around her shoulders and head.
"Feel free to remain here in the temple for as long as you wish, Miroku-sama. It is, as always, at your disposal," Kaede offered as she and Kagome grabbed their bows and headed towards the door.
Miroku rose to join them, gold topped shakujou jangling in his hand.
"I am afraid I have already imposed on your kind hospitality for far too long, Kaede-sama," he said with a slight bow. "Besides which, I have a few matters to attend to before I must move on. I suppose we will be forced to part ways here for the time being."
Before Kagome could so much as blink he was at her side, bending over to kiss her hand. It was such a foreign gesture that she had to fight down the urge to flinch. Until she felt the quick sweep of something across her posterior. Reflex alone had her open hand connecting hard with his face, mortification chilling her as the fleshy sound echoed in the small room.
"I…I-your hand!…you…" Kagome sputtered, her own hands flapping in odd, distressed gestures that were half placating and half explanatory. By the kami, she had struck a noble!
"Not to worry, Kagome-chan. My hand slipped and you reacted as anyone would," the houshi said smoothly, gingerly touching the redness blooming across his cheek.
Kagome could not help but think that the hand on her butt had felt oddly deliberate for an accident, but managed to bite back that observation. No need to press her luck any further if he was content to leave it be.
"Let us be on our way and let Miroku-sama be on his, child," Kaede spoke up, barely suppressed laughter thickening her voice. She took Kagome's hand to lead her out like a child, but Kagome hesitated as something occurred to her.
"Umm, Miroku-sama," she ventured hesitantly. "I do not quite know how to say this, especially after hitting you like that…"
"Ah, could it be that you have fallen for me?" Miroku interjected with the utmost seriousness. "Alas, fair Kagome-chan, as beautiful as you are, I am currently in no position to take a wife, though I suppose I could at least grant you the pleasure of bearing my-"
"Ah, no, that is not it at all," Kagome interrupted, too surprised by the outlandishness of his words to remember manners. "I was just wondering if you would be returning to the capital before winter."
"Oh!" said Miroku sheepishly, though without quite the degree of embarrassment that Kagome thought fitting of the situation. "Yes, I intend to. Why do you ask?"
It was Kagome's turn to feel sheepish.
"It is just…because of all the rain and the flooding, the village's crops for this season are wrecked, and I have quickly exhausted every option I know of to keep us all from going hungry this winter. I was hoping…that you might plead to the Tennō-sama on our behalf. I am truly sorry and ashamed to request this of you, but I think you might be our best hope."
Kagome bowed low, well aware that she was putting herself at his mercy.
"Now, no need for that Kagome-chan," the houshi said. "I will be more than glad to plead on behalf of your village when I return."
"Truly?" Kagome could have hugged him, her eyes bright with relief as she raised them to look at him.
"Of course," he replied. "And all that I would ask in return is that you, Kagome-chan, would bear for me a healthy-"
"Time to go, child," Kaede cut him off, practically dragging the young woman out of the hut.
"Farewell, Kagome-chan. I am certain we will meet again," Miroku called after them as they disappeared out into the storm.
"Are we certain he's a houshi? And of the court?" Kagome asked, casting an incredulous glance backwards.
"One would hope so, child. Otherwise you've just allowed him to grope your hindquarters with only a small slap in return."
It was not until dusk that Kagome was allowed to return home, waterlogged, exhausted, and thoroughly irritated.
Holes in the eastern-most edge of the barrier had required much more energy than she had anticipated to fix, on top of her already having expended a good amount of power in healing the child that morning. And all the while the rain had continued to pour down on their heads. Kagome could almost feel the crops dying.
To add to her irritation, Kaede had skirted neatly around every question she had asked concerning her strange visitor. While that did much in confirming her suspicions that something beyond what had been revealed was going on, in the end she was left with more questions than ever. Thus she returned home feeling rather defeated, hoping for nothing beyond changing into a dry set of clothes and crawling into her futon.
Her day, however, was nowhere near over.
Emerging from the cozy hut that she shared with her mother, brother, and grandfather was Miroku. Kagome nearly fell over.
Catching sight of her he waved cheerfully, yet again seemingly ignorant of the strangeness of his actions.
"I knew we would be meeting again, Kagome-chan. Certainly it must be fate. Though I am afraid that you are looking a bit worn after your long day."
Kagome's mouth opened and closed several times, but even a polite formality refused to spring readily to her lips. She settled for merely shaking her head, hoping to clear whatever fog had entered it.
"I see you are speechless with joy at our reunion. But come inside and sit down. We have much to discuss."
With a gentle hand on her shoulder he led her inside. Only vaguely did Kagome realize how silly it was to be led into her own home by a stranger, occupied as she was with keeping track of how low on her back his hand dared to dip.
Her mother sat inside the hut, clutching a piece of needle work in white-knuckled hands. She jerked up as they entered, as if suddenly throwing off a heavy weight. With a smile almost too wide she rose to greet them.
"Kagome, I'm so glad you're finally back. I was getting worried about you being out in this weather all day long," she fretted, wrapping her daughter in a tight embrace despite how soaked the miko was.
The embrace was oddly lingering for just a welcome-home hug, and Kagome could have sworn she felt her mother shaking faintly.
"Where are Souta and Jii-chan?" she asked, managing to put her mother at arm's length to take a look at her.
Her mother turned away quickly and went to busy herself with digging around in a small, rough trunk for a blanket. At a loss, Kagome looked to the houshi at her side. His smile was as friendly and unhelpful as ever.
Kagome's mother discovered a blanket with a tiny exclamation and quickly returned to wrap it firmly about Kagome's shoulders, leading her and Miroku to the fire pit in the center of the room. She forced them both to sit down and bustled about making a warm pot of tea in a manner so informal that Kagome had no doubt her mother and the houshi had been talking for some time before she arrived.
"May I ask what you are doing in my home, Houshi-sama?" she ventured hesitantly.
"This is the other business that I had to attend to. Though I believe your lovely and honorable mother would like to be the one to explain things fully to you," he replied.
Apprehension prickled lightly down the length of Kagome's spine. She turned to her mother.
"Mama? What's going on?" she called, halting her mother in her tracks. "Where are Souta and Jii-chan? Why have you been talking with Houshi-sama?"
Slowly the older woman set down all the trinkets she had been busying herself with. She came to sit across from the two, eyes fixed on the hands folded tightly in her lap.
The smile was gone. It had been painfully forced, Kagome realized.
Abruptly she noticed how tired her mother looked, the lines around her eyes and mouth deep. The older woman made a few helpless, pointless gestures with her hands before she was able to look her daughter in the eye.
"Kagome, dear…" she searched for words, and Kagome found herself holding her breath. "You know…you know too well what the situation here in the village is. As things stand we won't last through the winter. And even if we do, we'll still be dependent on you to keep the youkai from attacking."
"I know you're strong, dear…I know. But if things continue like this…all I can see is something that is long and difficult and painful for you. I don't want that. And I'm sure some part of you has realized it, too, and that you don't want it either, even if you're scared to say so."
"Mama," Kagome said, wanting her to stop.
She knew well enough what her future in the village would be, saddled with the weight of protecting it and yet never really belonging to it for the rest of her life. There was only one path for her to walk, and the bleakness and inevitability of it had nearly overcome her in her weaker moments.
But she had long since learned to accept it as the fate given to her. Better that she bear it with all the grace and cheer she could muster, as giving voice to her fears would only serve to trouble the villagers who depended upon her.
She refused to add another burden to the load of those who already had more than their fair share to deal with. They were strong, and it would be a grave failure on her part not to be strong, as well. That her mother had been able to see the fear in her…could the others see it, too? Was she failing them when they needed her most?
"I sent Souta and Jii-chan out to see what they could do in the way of covering the crops when Miroku-sama came requesting to speak with me," Kagome's mother plowed on relentlessly, though her voice trembled like it was all she could do not to cry.
"They both want what's best for you as well, but I didn't think that they would be able to handle this in quite the manner necessary. You've gotten beyond this village, Kagome. It's as simple as that."
"The way that Kaede-sama educated you, your immense spiritual gifts, even just by your own nature you're set apart. You've gone so far beyond all of us that the villagers can't help but clutch at you, relying on you even as they hold you as something apart from themselves. And you can't help but struggle to please them all, because that's who you are. But you'll never be happy here-it's not possible. It won't be enough for you. I'm scared that life here will crush you, will drain all the brightness I see in you."
"Mama, stop," Kagome pleaded, desperately frightened to hear the words she scarcely ever allowed herself even to think spoken aloud. "I was raised here, I'm just the same as everyone…as you…I'm a part of this village…"
"Hush now, Kagome," he mother broke in with gentle firmness, her expression slowly beginning to crumble. "You know better than that. I know better than that. You're my baby, and to watch you struggle every day…to watch you grow into someone so bright and strong…when Shingon-sama made his offer there was no choice but for me to accept."
"I know you'll be angry, but…please try to understand that I only want what's right for you," she entreated.
"I do believe that your honorable mother has only your best interests at heart. A lesser woman would not be able to do what she has done," the houshi added solemnly. Kagome jumped a little, having forgotten for a moment that he was still in the room with them.
"What has she done?" Kagome asked through lips gone numb, heart sinking like a stone through her chest to rest down in the pit of her stomach.
"Shingon-sama…has requested that you accompany him on his journey back to Heian. In a few days time, after you've packed and said your good-byes to the villagers, you'll be going with him…to live in the court as a spiritualist."
The tears that her mother had been so valiantly holding back escaped now in small, hiccupping sobs. She pressed a hand to her mouth as if to muffle the sound, her eyes meeting Kagome's in askance.
The cold and exhaustion of the day seemed to seep down into Kagome's bones. She could only stare at her sobbing mother, the woman who had just given her away.
Darkness welled up, veiling her eyes. She fainted.