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A Willow Before The Wind

Chapter Text

The wind rattled the shutters.

Summer came mercilessly even in the mountains. The rains fell heavily, turning small streams into rushing rivers, and the roar of the thunder set the floor trembling.

Michiko stood in the doorway, gazing out into the garden. Though she was no longer a child, she clasped her hands over her belly, protecting herself from Raijin's hunger. She was so small, her father often said, that some might mistake her for a infant, and the Gods were not known for their attentiveness.

"Close the shutter, Chiko-chan." Her aunt hurried over. "You know better than to court the attention of the Gods."

Michiko bowed her head obediently, swathes of black hair falling forward over her shoulders. "The storm must keep the army at bay," she said. "Surely, it would be too dangerous to cross the pass."

"Ha!" Her aunt ushered her back towards the table. "Men will do many foolish things, if they believe they can claim land and gold." She shook her head, her heavy grey hair swaying like silk. "The wells of our town are known to be filled with sake. Of course they will come. Better by summer storm than by winter snow."

Michiko chewed on her lower lip. Her father had gathered many councillors of the town and all of the warriors to meet in the lower chamber. Even now, she could hear the voices raised. She folded back her sleeve over her wrist and gazed at her hands. It was always so. The men would shout and unsheathe their katanas. They would argue and they would drink, and when all was said and done, they would call on her to sing for them, to calm their mood.

"Do you believe we can turn them away?" she asked, looking to her aunt.

Her father's sister's mouth drew up like a shrivelled plum. "They have numbers we do not," she said. The old woman often hobbled about around the men, ordering the maids and bringing food. They did not imagine that she would listen to what was said on her niece's behalf.

"What of the Ronin?"

Her aunt snorted, settling her old bones on a cushion. "Give them coin and drink and they will be loyal as long as it lasts," she replied. "You know your father's coin as well as I do, child." Her black eyes gleamed. "Do you think it will last long enough?"

Michiko traced the the pattern on the sleeve of her kimono. It would never last. They had too few men, even with hired blades, and too little money to pay them. Their town was too small and too vulnerable, but the men would not allow it to be taken from them without a battle. Their deaths would not come easily and the women and children would be the reward for the victors.

She rose, walking across the tatami, the heavy silk of her robes rushing quietly on the floor.

A crack of thunder shook the house beneath her feet.

"I must go to the temple," she said quietly. "I would pray."

Her aunt gnashed her few teeth together and shook her head. "The Gods do not care for little wars, Chiko-chan. Pray if you will, but they will not help us."

Michiko looked at her gravely. "I shall try nonetheless."

The rain was still falling when she emerged. Her aunt bound up her robes and she slipped into her geta. The cobbles looked like the pebbles at the bottom of a fast-flowing stream. Michiko held up her waxed umbrella and hurried out, drawing her shawl close about her face. Her father would be displeased. She was not meant to leave the house, but her aunt would spin a tale and she would pray, and perhaps, the Gods would be generous.

The temple stood empty ahead of her, the scent of the sandalwood and incense coiling about her as she stepped through the torii and into the grounds of the building. She paused there, bowing respectfully, then hurried onwards towards the shrine. A solitary bell tolled mournfully in the wind.

Despite the heavy warmth in the air, she shivered as she stepped beneath the curved roof. The rain pattered on, rattling across the tiles and dripping down the steps. Michiko closed her umbrella and propped it against one of the pillars of the shrine, then stepped carefully out of her geta onto the smooth stone.

Michiko took up the ladle, rinsing her hands and her mouth, then approached the shrine.

The bell here was larger, heavier, silent.

She wrapped her hands around the ancient rope and rattled the bell. For good measure, she clapped her hands together twice, so sharply that her palms stang, then bowed her head and prayed to any Kami that might be kind enough to listen. She prayed for her village, her father, her family, her friends. She prayed that the enemies from over the mountains would not reach them, that the weather would drive them back, that they would be safe. She prayed, offering all that lay within her hands to offer, even tonsure.

The breeze whirled about her, making her shiver anew.

Perhaps the Gods were acknowledging her or perhaps it was only the wind.

The worst of the storm had abated when her voice wore thin and her throat was dry. Heavy sunlight broke through the dark clouds. Michiko emerged into the light, blinking hard against it. The world shone, as if freshly-washed, and she could hear the song of birds in the forest that framed the temple complex.

Her father would not expect her to be abroad in sunlight. Her skin took colour too easily. Better to keep to the shade.

She put up her umbrella and skirted closer to the forest. There were paths there, stepping stones into a green and ripe world, and older shrines. Michiko hesitated. If she was to pray to the great Gods, then why not seek the attentions of the lesser Gods also?

The forest was dim, even in the bright daylight, the sunlight casting a thousand shades of green and gold through the high branches. The patterns upon the ground should be preserved, she knew, in silks and paint. Ladies in the highest courts of the land would vie for such beauty. Man could only recreate what nature and the Gods displayed for him.

Bamboo towered, thick and tall, and she wove her way deeper, following the broad, flat stones.

Tiny statues, carved rocks, even small waterfalls bore signs of prayer.

At each, Michiko paused, pressed her palms together about the handle of her umbrella, bowed her head.

Even the smallest of Kami were worthy of a prayer.

The path wove deeper and further until she found herself at the far side of the village. She felt a nervous flutter in her breast at the sight of the monkey guardians, placed at the north-east border to keep the Oni at bay. They were ancient statues, worn away by rain and wind from over the mountains.

Michiko stepped between them, standing on the last stone that marked the edge of her home.

"Protect us," she whispered, raising her face to the sky.

Raindrops fell anew, pattering on her skin, and she drew the umbrella over her. The whisper of the rain on the leaves and the quiet rush of the nearby streams were her only companions as she hurried back, skirting the edge of the forest, towards her home.

Her aunt met her at the door, ushering her in.

"You have not yet been called on, Chiko-chan," she whispered conspiratorially, "but they eat now, so they will call for you soon. Food then pretty girls and sake, if I know men."

Michiko wrinkled her nose. "I will sing for them if they are not too drunk," she said. "They become uncouth when they drink."

"Especially Hideo-kun?" Her aunt nudged her slyly. "You know your father and his have spoken."

Michiko felt her cheeks flush and lowered her head. "Spoken, yes," she said. "That is all."

"Ah," her aunt lamented. "You still long for a poet, heh?"

Michiko ignored her and hurried up the staircase to her chamber. It was true that Hideo was a handsome man, the tallest and strongest in all of the village. He had sent her a cordial letter through her father, declaring her beauty and acknowledging her love of the written word, but that was all it had been: cordial. There was no rhyme to it, no poetry.

Michiko knew it was foolish to wish for such a thing. Their village was too small, and no man cared to write poetry when the harvest was hard upon them.

She sat at her writing desk and gazed down at the fine papers her father had presented to her. He could not find a suitor who would be worthy of her in words, but he wished her to feel that she was worthy of the words herself. It was her secret love, above all things.

She took up her inkstone, a rich, dark brown, then her brush.

The words came easily: the distant thunder the voices of the soldiers, ignoring the gentle whisper of the rain bringing new life. Her eyes brimmed with tears that she brushed away quickly. It would not do to appear before her father's men wearing a mask of grief over a battle not yet lost.

She shed her outer robe, noticing the stains of the forest. Her father would know at once, when he saw it, that she had walked abroad without his leave. It was too late now. As much as he compelled her to obediance, he knew that her fate would fall in her hands. No man can guide the fall of the blossom, and so, no man can guide the will of a woman.

Michiko combed out her hair, letting it cascade down her back, then neatened her kimono. Her koto was resting in the main chamber already, for her father always summoned her to sing. She folded her hands in her lap, calm and patient, and waited.

The sun was beginning its descent when her aunt peered around the door, beckoning her, palm-down. "Your father calls you," she whispered. She looked worried. "He would not allow me into the room. I think there is something wrong, Chiko-chan."

Michiko trembled. Her aunt seldom worried, even in the face of war. "Am I to sing?" she asked.

"I cannot say," her aunt said, smoothing her sleeves and drawing twin strands of hair down to frame her face. "But you must go quickly."

Michiko hurried down the wooden stairs and knelt at the door. The forbidden shadow of war had been settled upon them too long for her to fear it, but this was something new. She took a shivering breath, then put her fingertips to the door and slid it open.

All eyes in the room turned to her, which gave her pause. Normally, they did not pay heed to her until she took up her koto. She lowered her lashes, rose and stepped lightly into the room, then knelt again to close the door. She could feel each eye upon her.

Her aunt was right.

Something was wrong.

She could feel her heart beat quicken beneath her obi, but did her utmost not to show her concern as she rose and approached her father. Her hands were clasped modestly before her. “I am here, otosama.”

“Ah!” An unfamiliar voice spoke, bright and mocking. “The pious little daughter.” The speaker laughed, a chilling sound, sharp and cruel. “You told me you had no child, Yamada, and yet, I see one before us.”

It was improper to look at one’s guests, but Michiko could not help but look up, to see who disrespected her father within his own home. She caught a glimpse of tiger fur, and dark hide, as her eyes rose.

Michiko fell back with a small cry of alarm.

The creature crouched beside her father smiled at her terror. His face was scaled. It seemed to shift between gold and green like the hide of a lizard. His teeth were sharp fangs, and from his tangled, curled hair, she could see two horns emerging.

An oni.

She darted a look at her father. His face was pale as snow, and his hands closed fast about the sheath of his katana. It was the demon, not he, who had summoned her hence. The demon who called her pious.

Michiko wished she could cry out or sob, but it was her doing. The oni had approached on her invitation, when she stood at the boundaries. She pressed her hand to the tatami and rose back onto her knees. She was shaking, but she arranged her sleeves upon her knees and folded her hands one upon the other.

“Oni-sama,” she said, bowing her head in a proper show of respect.

He laughed again, a gleeful, wicked sound. “Oni-sama?” She heard him clapping his clawed hands together. “A title that becomes me, at last.” The air felt like it stirred and all at once, he was before her, one claw lifting her chin to his monstrous face. “Speak again, Chiko-chan.”

She stared back at him, a demon, and defiantly lifted her chin. “My name is Michiko, oni-sama,” she said. “I do not know you.”

He smiled like the tiger he was garbed in, revealing sharp and ugly teeth. “It is so, Chiko-chan,” he said, his face twisting in a sneer. “But I think you shall.” He rose suddenly, turning about the room. He had a great metal club in one hand, and he brought it up to rest upon his shoulder. “I can cast your enemies to the four winds. I can rend them limb from limb. Would you have me do this?”

There was a stunned silence, and a rush of whispers.

Michiko lowered her eyes as the demon walked this way and that. His toes were clawed as were his fingers, his skin scaled all over. Why had he come? She had asked for protection and now, he offered? Why?

She heard her father rise. “Your might would be a boon, oni-sama,” he said, though the words caught on his tongue. Michiko flinched. The demon would be able to hear, to sense her father’s anger and fear at the oni’s presence.

“A boon?” The oni circled around behind her. “No, no, no, Yamada. You misunderstand me.” His arm extended over Michiko’s body and he planted the end of his club on the floor before her, his claws curled around the top. “I am not here as a… kindness. I am bored. I would have blood.” His voice lowered to a growl. “What is it worth that I kill them instead of letting them kill you?”

Her father’s words caught in his throat. “We have little of value, oni-sama.”

She heard the demon hiss. “Lies, again, Yamada. Lies.”

Michiko looked up at her father. She had never seen him look so ill.

“We have some little gold,” he offered, his voice shivering.

“What use have I for a shiny rock?” The oni laughed darkly. “I who can bring down mountains. I who can turn the storm upon itself. You think a handful of yellow rock will be enough to court my favour?” He moved so close that Michiko could feel the brush of his furs against the back of her kimono. She tightened one hand around the other. “My price is her.”

Her father’s eyes widened in horror and he stumbled a step. “My child?”

A clawed hand drew through Michiko’s hair. She forced herself to calm, stared straight ahead. “A fair price for a little town,” the oni said with a small, unpleasant laugh. “A little woman who prays to even the darkest of kami.”

“Chiko-chan…” Her father stared at her. He shook his head. “No. Get out. We will take our chances with our enemies.”

The oni tugged on Michiko’s hair enough to make her flinch, but she did not cry out. She was staring at her father’s ashen face. He and every other man in the room would die when the armies came, whether by the hand of their enemy or by their own hand. Many of the woman in the village would fall before their husbands, rather than their foe.

“As you wish,” the oni murmured, leaning down over her, his face so close that she could taste the bitter breath. “You asked, I offered, Chiko-chan. Give my regards to Shinigami.”

She was released and as suddenly as she was free, her father had her shoulders in his hands.

“No!” she cried, rising and turning. “Wait, oni-sama!”

The oni was at the door, fading into shadows, but at her voice he paused.

Michiko felt her father’s hand on her wrist, but shook it off and approached the oni. She had called upon anyone who might aid them, and aid had come. Each step felt like a thousand paces up a mountain, but she came close to him.

He watched her from deep, dark eyes. He did not smile nor laugh nor joke.

She bowed deeply, and rose slowly. “I will go with you, oni-sama.”

He gazed at her, and his mouth curved into a smile.

“Chiko-chan! No!” Hideo exclaimed. “I will not allow this!”

She did not turn nor look away from the oni. His eyes were gleaming, as if he wished to see what she would do or say. “Does the wind stop blowing when it strikes upon a mountain?” she asked quietly. “No. It will find a new path.” She bowed again. “I will go with him.”

Clawed fingers uncurled, tugging at the air. “It’s forever, Chiko-chan.” The oni’s gazed was fixed on her.

She dared not look away. “My family and my village,” she said, her voice amazing her with its steadiness. “They will live?”

He bared his teeth. “And their enemies will be swallowed by the mountains,” he said. “You have my word.”

Michiko could feel the blood rush in her ears. “Then you have mine, oni-sama.” She bowed as low as she could. “I will go with you forever.”

“Chiko-chan,” her father whispered. “Chiko-chan, you cannot go with him. You cannot go with this demon.”

She reluctantly took her eyes from the oni to turn to her father. “Otosama,” she said, her mouth dry and her voice hoarse. She bowed as deeply to him as she had to the oni. “It is done. You shall be safe now.

She flinched when long fingers curled about her waist.

The oni peered over her shoulder, smiling unpleasantly. “She is right, Yamada,” he said, pulling her back a step until she was pressed close to his body. She did not fight nor pull away. “One little girl has done what a thousand blades could not.”

Her father looked as one dead. “Chiko-chan…”

“Forgive me, otosama,” she said quietly.

The oni laughed again, the walls of the house ringing with it, and drew her with him. He did not allow her to take her geta even though the rain still fell and the cobbles were puddled. His claws held her fast and together - barefoot - they walked into the night.