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The Kindling

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The wind yowled in the roofs of the houses like an enraged wildcat, tearing at the straw and scratching claws of ice-laden snow down the long slopes of Ezofuji. The flames in hearths twirled high and families huddled together. Nights like this were a time for gathering, for turning minds and hearts away from the deathly cold and towards days gone by.

Grandfather had dreamed of brief and tender spring, a splash of verdant zest across the rough lives that their northern home offered his people. There had been golden flowers pushing through the snow and the tang of pinewood fires. Now it was the good, slowly consumed birch that burned in his house to ward off the bitter winter. The house was tidy, the nets and looms and tools put away for the night. His sword rested in the northwestern corner.

He came to the fire as Grandmother finished singing, moving into the story-spinner's spot. Her old knees creaking with the effort, she vacated the place. How she had run, one day, like the sea wind she had pelted across the valleys and forests of Kamui. He folded onto the woven rugs.

"Thus ends the story of Amaterasu and Oki in the Wawku Shrine," he murmured when the last notes of her song had tumbled off into the corners of the house. The children lifted their heads: Grandfather rarely took the singer's seat, to tell in his raspy old voice a tale of wonder or caution. When he did, the youngsters clustered in to catch every word, for he would scarce repeat himself.

"I haven't the words of one who has feasted on the dipper's heart," he began. "But as the sacred sword Kutone strikes true, so is this story true. It tells of the sun-wolf and her faithful companion, and of Oki of the Oina, who fought together in the shrine of our blood kin.

The terrible battle against the demons Lechku and Nechku was done. The haggard companions came outside to see the sun dwindling in the sky. A shudder ran through Amaterasu's form, the mirror on her back flowing with restless, sparking flames. The Day of Darkness had begun. The white wolf's step was heavy with her wounds, and Denkomaru, the swift blade of the Poncle warrior, bore a dull edge. Oki was hale of body, but sore of heart, as they made their way down the steep Ezofuji.

The fiery mountains groaned underneath their load of snow. The blizzard had been stopped and the demons lay dead, the vile magic that had roused them purged from their machine bodies. The man of the Oina still carried the burden of intentions that had turned out false for all that he had found his path at the last moment and, alongside Amaterasu, emerged victorious over the twin owls.

They came upon a towering drift and stopped in its lee to rest. It was then that Amaterasu raised her weary head, perceiving something that eluded all but the keenest of senses. With renewed purpose, she went to work digging. He watched with bemusement as she flung up hard-packed snow, until he saw a tuft of straw jutting from the hole she had made. With a yelp of surprise, he sprang to help her, burrowing with wolf-paws through the whiteness. Amazed, he understood that the drift was in fact a snow-saddled house, perched in the deep divide that separated the two mountains.

The roof of the round hut was sloped and densely thatched against the winter. Hare's forepaws hung about its door to ward away sickness and evil, twined with other protective charms. It seemed a house that should have brimmed with life and light, the chatter of women and the shouts of children at play, the murmur of men as they talked over their tasks, but the doorway stood empty like a gaping mouth.

The three ventured inside on paws soft as the finest hemp, Issun crouched in Amaterasu's coat. The trappings of a prosperous home encircled a sundered hearth. The room was covered in dust. The quilts mouldered unaired and the nets gathered dirt and tangles on the wall. In a corner by the swords and the robes someone sat curled, her eyes flashing hard as a crystal knife in the faint illumination that the doorway let in.

'You step into my sister's house.' The woman's voice was husky and parched. 'What do you seek here?'

'Calm down, sweet cheeks, we're looking for some shelter,' said the small Issun in his blithe fashion. 'It's a foul night out there. The name is Issun, and this here is known as No-Bath Ammy, saviour of Nippon. The fellow by the door...'

'I am Oki,' said Oki, stepping forward. This was a house of his people, but it was high on the forbidding mountain. No Oina would build a home so far from fresh water and kin to keep him safe and warm through the winter. 'Who is the mistress of this house?'

'I am Hashi.' The woman's dress was dirty and tattered, but she held her head proud. Her mask had the face of the wily fox carved and limned upon it. Her dark hair was gathered up into a thick bun at the nape of her neck; in the gloom of the hut, she seemed little more than a patchwork of shadows. 'My sister is the Lady Fuchi, but she is gone. Her hearth was broken by the curse of the demons, and thus the land of Kamui fell into this devastating cold.'

Now Oki started. Her words plummeted into his heart as stones into water. They were still deep in spirit country, away from the bounds of Wep'keer and the safety of his tribesmen. This dark woman in this dark house was family to the Kindler, Kamui Fuchi of the fire. From her hearth had been lit the first Oina hearth that was the centre of a home.

'Lechku and Nechku are dead,' he rumbled. The sacred blade Kutone gleamed hungrily on his back as the names rang in the room. 'Their magic is no more.'

'Then where is my sister?' Hashi looked at him with her keen eyes though the slits in her mask. 'I have waited for her. The hearth is her place. She never crosses the threshold.'

Oki gestured for his companions, feeling fear rise in him. If this was Fuchi's Hearth and she was not here, then who was to send the Volcanic Incantation up to Ezofuji? Who was to toss the kindling and summon up the flames that banished the winter frost?

'Our work is far from done, Amaterasu,' he warned. 'I had not thought the situation this dire.' The hearth at their feet was lined with stones that had once lodged tidily together. They lay strewn and shattered, the coals gouged from the pit and thrown across the floor.

The wolf gave a gnarr and bumped Oki's shoulder with her head.

'Ammy has it right, Oki,' came the voice of Issun from the fur of the wolf's neck. 'What are we waiting for? The sun-god and the mightiest warrior of the Oina? One broken hearth is nothing after facing down those nasty old owls.'

Oki looked at the two. They had no tribe, but they radiated the warmth of one for all to see, the same way Shiranui and her Ishaku had. They carried their kin in only two, but the bond ran as strong as the ties woven through an entire village.

'What do you need, sweetheart?' Issun piped to the watchful Hashi. 'Smashed stones? That's a few flicks of a wolf's tail when the wolf in question is Ammy here. Right?'

Amaterasu circled the hearth with a scrutinising air. Her tail swished back and forth, leaving the impression of thick ink curling through the very fabric of the air.

'You are strong, my lady,' Hashi said sternly. 'Yet you are not of this earth. Kamui lives, thrives and dies under its own rules. Lady Fuchi's hearth is the foundation of this land, and this land must build it anew. Oki of the Oina, you have slain the wicked demons. Will you lend me your strength?'

For a spell, the beat of a seabird's wing, Oki stood frozen. He had gone alone in pursuit of a selfish desire, Kutone an inert weight on his back, and left behind friend and family. He had claimed the lives of many a monster throughout the icy wastes, but he had been one, a man bereft of even the company of his trusted sword.

'By my life or my death,' he said softly, the words rough to speak.

'Then we will call the spirits of the land, the air and the sea to our aid!' Hashi declared. 'You bring glad tidings, kinsman and brave strangers. Run with me!' She stood up and staggered as she did so. Oki saw her shoes were soaked with old blood. Stubbornly she stumbled forward, but he had to catch her so she would not topple.

'You are Hashi, the huntress,' he said as he understood. The twin demons had hamstrung her, the swiftest of the spirits. 'The fox's paws are crippled.'

'I must go,' she insisted grimly. 'The demons came in a great charge down Ezofuji. They smashed the stones and scattered my sister's children all across the treacherous slopes.'

'Allow me,' he said. Amaterasu whuffled from outside, pawing in anticipation. Flames licked and curled from the mirror she bore on her back, tapering into shimmering blues and greens.

With great dignity, Hashi pulled herself onto Oki's back, her legs gripping his flanks as he loped outside. She touched her mask and was still.

'Our people were asleep in the snow, smothered by the demons,' she said. 'We must cut new stones from the height of Ezofuji, and bring wood to fuel the fire. I will call my folk to our aid, but they are not plentiful in number. The salmon kin sleep under the ice, and the bear family in their caves. The crane flies away, but the fox still stalks the snow.'

'Kutone will cut the stones,' said Oki. 'I will guide it in the task.'

'That leaves us on firewood duty.' Issun sounded a touch sour, but Amaterasu's ears perked. All of them had a long way to go: down to the valley where trees grew, up to the fearsome, wind-whipped peak.

Hashi raised her voice in a long, ululating call that stirred echoes from the nooks and contours of the mountain. Purple orbs of foxfire fluttered from the deep dens under the snow, and her fleet-footed people came rushing to her call. Amaterasu released a warning growl, but the foxes, all copper-red, all with white-tipped tails flicking, sat down on their haunches and heeded the huntress.

'Easy, furball. These rascals are on our side.' Issun calmed the wolf with a word in her ear.

'Take these two, and show them the places where the trees of my sister grow,' Hashi commanded. The foxes stirred, forming a line as straight as any arrow, and dashed down the mountainside. Little Issun clung to Amaterasu's fur as the wolf was off.

'Oki of the Oina,' said Hashi. 'You have the more difficult task. The summit of Ezofuji is too steep for even my folk to scale.'

Oki gathered his courage and spoke his thought. 'Then call the kin of your sister. Even if the foot of a fox or a wolf may slip, the wing of a crane will soar over any earthly obstacle.'

She regarded him then with a piercing clarity, as if measuring the worth of his words. Then she tilted back her head and sang. It was a deep and haunting note that she cried out. Then they waited, Hashi folded on the ground even as Oki felt his feet grow restless. The disc of the sun shrank ever smaller. The sky had become black and flat as an ink stone.

At last there was the slow sound of great wings from the gloaming. Eight majestic cranes landed and furled their wings as they bent their heads in courtesy to the huntress.

'I ask for your help, winged cousins. Bear this man to the mountain, so he may build again the hearth that marks my sister's house a home.'

She knotted the string of her bow and the cords of her traps into a net. 'I will wait for you in my sister's house, kinsman.'

He took on the shape of a man then. The chill air snaked under his vest and tousled his hair, but the work ahead required the dexterity of human hands. The cranes grasped onto the net Hashi had woven together.

'I shall return swiftly,' he said to her as the cranes lifted him up, straining until the wind caught their wings and bore them upwards. Oki shut his eyes and felt his heart drum in his chest. The ways of the Oina take them through the wild places of the land, but the sky belongs to the spirits.

Eventually the cranes came diving down, their wings slapping to slow the descent. The crater of the volcano rose around them like the cupped fist of a giant. The stone of the wall was as dark as the sky above under the glittering ice. Oki saw at once this would be no easy task.

Once drawn, Kutone shone in his hand as if in reassurance. The bright blade clove clean into the rock at the first attempt.

The air grew thin and wound around his throat like a silken thread as he laboured. The cranes pried free each stone that he hewed and flapped away clutching the stones in their beaks. Many times he wavered in his work, battle-exhaustion stilling his blood and weighing his limbs, but never once did his fingers loosen their grip around Kutone's hilt. The sword, he knew, was a tool ill-suited for the work of chipping stone, yet nothing but the sacred blade might have cut the glass-smooth rock. Kutone gave off a rippling, watery glow that allowed him to see in the dank depth of the crater, where the sky was only an oval of purple-tinted darkness above the walls.

It might have been hours or days when he took the last stone in his jaws and shook himself back into the form of the wolf. The cranes ousted him as far as the rim of the crater, but from there he darted down the slope. It was like flying. His claws barely scratched the surface crust of the snow, dense and hard like gemstone so close to the summit. The cranes soared ahead and circled back, calling in their iron voices to keep him running the right way.

Hashi's eyes widened behind her mask as he skidded into a halt on the threshold of Fuchi's house. She clasped her hands together and laughed like a girl at springtime. 'Oh, you have saved us.'

The warmth that thrummed through him had nothing to do with being out of the inclement weather. The house, while still bleak, had been set to rights. A fox ran past dragging a quilt outside to be beaten.

'We have the hearth stones,' Hashi said. 'My people and the white wolf have found firewood. The spirits of the land and the air have done their part.' Then her face fell, the full lines of her mouth twisting with dismay. 'But my sister's covenant is with the water as well. I have been a fool! It is all snow and ice here!'

Oki's heart sank even as he gently laid the final stone on the floor. It was as she had said. The waters of Kamui lapped under thick folds of ice, and the fish had crept to the bottoms of rivers and lakes to weather until spring. It was a spring that was only a dream if the Lady Fuchi was not there to receive the Oina words of power in the Volcanic Incantation.

'What do we do? The sun is almost gone.' For the first time, her fierce look faltered. The foxes milled around her, nosing her hands and licking the tears from her cheeks in a vain effort to console her. Oki shuddered in sympathy.

A quilt-dragging fox shot in through the doorway in a storm of yips and whines. Hashi lifted her head in astonishment.

A commotion had begun down the slope and was now rolling closer: a glimpse of fire red as a camellia flower, the rush of movement, the flowing of water. Amaterasu dashed pell-mell through the snow, her tail whisking furiously. Guided by the stream of ink, great gouts of water crashed upwards behind her. She was pulling an ink-born river up the slope.

As the waters drew closer they saw that the stream teemed with silver-scaled salmon, each of them bearing a twig or a curl of bark or a dead leaf. The salmon flipped and leapt upwards until they were at Lady Fuchi's doorstep, then swept around and let the current toss them back towards the deep waters where they wintered. Above all the hustle and bustle ran the clear laughter of Issun.

'That's our Ammy!' he crowed. 'If the house can't come to the river, she takes the river to the house!'

'Come,' Oki said to Hashi, who was staring with round eyes at the spectacle. 'We have no time to lose!'

Amaterasu vaulted over the rushing stream. Another streak of her tail widened its groove. A gentle flick sent a breeze into the house to dry the kindling after the splashing of the salmon. The foxes slunk in and slipped their burdens of birch and willow to the floor next to Hashi. She knelt by the stones as Oki laid them in a circle, the foxes scraping away at the earthen floor so he could tuck them in tightly. Hashi sat with her wounded feet under the hem of her robe and built the fire as every woman is taught. She layered fallen wood and brittle kindling. The flame would have nourishment when new and weak, and a nest to carve for itself when its strength grew.

Finally the last salmon-tail had flicked by the door and vanished down towards the ice-bound river. Amaterasu shook water-drops from her fur. Hashi whispered over the fire-drill as she spun it between her hands. Even Issun sat still on the white wolf's head and listened to the fox-masked woman chant to the hearth-fire, in nigh subliminal syllables that floated from her lips in a ceaseless song.

The first blue curl of smoke struck Oki's nose like a firecracker. The movement of her hands quickened, and fox and wolf and Poncle alike held their breath.

Hashi coaxed the tiny, yellow spark towards the hearth. It skimmed a tattered shaving of birch bark and opened into a single flutter of fire under the unblinking eyes of the company. The flame climbed across the forked willow twigs and flared the brown leaves into momentary flowers of tawny splendour.

After a breathless ascent, the fire suddenly whorled into an unearthly height. Their shadows were cast slinking back along the wall as light and heat flooded the hearth. The bowed, strong shape of a woman appeared from the flames. She bore the crane on her brow, long feathers brushed back over her shining grey hair. Her robe was rich and heavy with patterns, her hands dark with soot and blistered from tending the fire. Hashi bowed, Oki echoing her gesture as the Lady of the Hearth returned to her house. Her presence soaked him in something that could only be called contentment, a deep sense of belonging.

'I am well pleased by your help, my children,' she whispered in velvet tones of pride. Then she nodded to Amaterasu, and the wolf gave a low growl in return. Warmth poured from them both that enveloped the room like a mother's embrace warms a child after a nightmare. 'I can hear the Incantation.' Her voice turned humming and eerie. She began a song from deep in her throat.

'That would be little Lika,' Issun reminded the tired company. 'We have to hurry.'

In the corner, Hashi sat and wrapped her feet with the leaves of healing herbs. Her bright dark eyes found Oki's as he made his leave. 'Farewell,' she said, but the word was gentle.

'Farewell,' he replied, and that was that. He remembered another face, another quick-footed one, another pair of eyes that had looked upon him softly.

Amaterasu nudged him with her nose as he came out. Through the gloom, the fires of Wep'keer glimmered nestled against the foot of the mountain. The white wolf's fur was ragged with work, the crimson markings on her head barely visible, as if they were a mere vestige of colour rubbed away.

'Let's be off, Oki. They're waiting for us.'

'Indeed.'

The house folded out of sight as they raced together down the mountainside. Amaterasu was panting even as she tumbled onwards, and Oki took the lead despite himself, ploughing through the snow to make a path for the wolf that no longer glided forward like a ghost. He had a sense that for all the good done, the real challenge was yet to come. Kutone had to be returned to its rightful place. The darkness of the sky had not abated. Amaterasu's wan demeanour spread a shadow on the fervent joy he had felt at the kindling of Fuchi's hearth.

Pale light spread around them then from between the mountains where the house of the Lady lay. It scrambled up in spirals of vermillion and the limpid green of new leaves, in filmy fingers that grasped at the sky to rise ever higher.

'The Lady got her fire going good and true!' Issun's chattering voice had a satisfied note.

Oki snapped out a laugh, but Amaterasu slowed her run, lagging across the snow in low and tentative paces. It was his turn to nuzzle her, even as the little Poncle patted her drooping ear.

The northern lights above them swelled into veils of embers and sparks, unfurling on unseen winds until they took up the sky and challenged the creeping darkness. A glow sheened Amaterasu, lighting the tips of her fur and deepening the hue of the sacred red signs of power upon her. She charged him then with a joyful woof, and they went head over tail into a drift, their combined weight cracking the glaze of ice and throwing up jets of powdery snow. Issun yelled protests as he clung to Amaterasu's ear for dear life.

'Slow down, you big, stupid ball of fur! This is no time to be frolicking! We're still up in nowhere mountain!'

'Nowhere?' Oki grumbled as he trod the gleeful wolf into the soft snow underneath. 'This is the hearth of our mother, pint-sized warrior! Even the white one feels her warmth.'

Amaterasu burst from the snowbank, clumps of white sprawling as the fiery mirror on her back flared. Snow crystals scattered from her paws as she ran, huffing and puffing, trailing a purifying blaze into the dark. Then the flying snow was no longer snow, but a path of fragrant flowers that wound down towards Wep'keer. They fluttered down in her wake, little glints of life and light.

Oki leaped after her with a bark that was a laugh that was a victory howl."

The story abated by bits and pieces, as does any spell woven with simple words. The old man looked hard at the gathered youngsters. "This tale is not in records or paintings. It must be passed down like a breath of air or a cup of water, consumed and in the consuming remembered, in the retelling remade for the next listener. This is how Amaterasu and Oki built again the hearth of Kamui Fuchi, and made safe the slopes of Ezofuji and the lands of Kamui for all her children to roam."

One by one they got up to go to their quilts and furs. Grandmother brought him a mug of broth and curved his stiff hands around it. She touched his cheek, as she had every evening since he could remember, and went to bed. He sat before the low-burning hearth, wandering his memory, more vivid sometimes than the faces of his sons and daughters or those of their children. He drank and the broth had the taste of spring on his tongue.