The warm, dry breeze ruffled Rin's hair as she made her way down the dirt road. She re-adjusted her straw hat to keep the shade on her face. It was no concern to her if she freckled, but Kohaku and Shippo would never let her hear the end of it if she came back tanned like an old, leather hide.
She glanced up at the sun's high position in the sky. She would have plenty of time to reach the village, even with a break for a midday meal. Spotting a tree just off the side of the road, she made her way to the space beneath the green branches and set down her bags. She leaned against the trunk and rummaged through her things until she found a few rice balls.
As she ate her snack, Rin looked out across at the countryside, taking in the distant mountains and admiring the white clouds drifting lazily across the sky. It was days like this that made traveling worthwhile: just wilderness, wildlife, and rice balls.
In the eight months since she started traveling to remote villages, Rin had gone through many new experiences. It had helped to take her mind off other, less enjoyable things.
A few short months after the spring festival in her fourteenth year, where Rin had caught the eyes of many young men in the village, Kaede had fallen victim to a dry and winded cough, with little energy or appetite. Rin had tended to the old priestess constantly for more than fortnight before Kaede showed signs of recovery. For another several weeks after, Rin forced Kaede to rest until she was convinced that the priestess was fit enough to move about normally. However, for the rest of the summer, Rin kept her eye on the old woman, ready to catch any hint of a symptom.
Sometime later, as the evenings started to carry a cold nip that foretold the coming of winter, Rin had returned from an errand in the village to find Kaede collapsed on the floor. The old priestess had no breath on her lips and Rin could not detect the thud of a heartbeat.
Struggling to hold back her tears, Rin had run to Kagome's home and practically into the young woman's arms. Concerned, Kagome sent Inuyasha to Kaede's hut. When he returned with an ashen look, Kagome also started to shed tears and Rin could hold back hers no longer. The two wept for the passing of their mentor and old friend.
Kagome offered to let Rin stay with her and Inuyasha, but Rin refused to leave the old priestess' hut. She remained withdrawn and rarely left the immediate area around her home. Her friends grew increasingly worried. Winter was on the way and Rin didn't look like she could take care of herself.
About a month after Kaede's death, Kagome called Rin to her home. She explained that she was having trouble keeping up with the additional responsibilities. Several requests had come from neighboring villages for medicines and small spiritual items. Would Rin be able to deliver and provide any aid as needed?
Rin accepted first that request, then a second and a third. Slowly she spent more and more time traveling and helping the sick and injured. As the winter months passed, she found herself falling into the new routine and leaving her grief behind.
Then last spring, news had come from a remote region that had been bit hard by the winter. They requested favors of the priestess, primarily healing skills and medicines. But the lady Kagome, expecting her second child, was in no position to make the journey. Rin volunteered to deliver the items in her place.
That had been some months back - now it was towards the end of summer, with high temperatures and even higher humidity. Rin had completed her round and would be returning home after one final stop on the road.
Wiping the rice crumbs from her face, she packed her items and prepared to leave. The warm wind blew some wisps of her in her face. She took one last look at the landscape and then set out.
She traveled for the rest of the day and the sun was already setting by the time she arrived in the village.
On the edge of the settlement, there was little sign of life. Burnt debris littered the ground and skeletal structures remained where homes had once stood. Rin quickly lifted her kimono sleeve to cover her face; the air was rank with decomposing material. Not far away, laid the form of a small animal, clearly a family pet. She blinked back tears as she surveyed the area. She was no stranger to destruction and suffering, but that didn't make it any easier to stomach.
Rin pressed on and within a few minutes, she had left the graveyard behind. The buildings here were standing, but appeared to be held together with a patchwork of replacement wood. There were no people in the streets, but she could see signs of light behind closed doors and windows.
Looking for someone to speak to, Rin spotted an elderly man making his way down the path that ran through the center of the village. She quickened her pace and caught up with the old timer.
"Excuse me, do you know where I might find the leader of this village?" Rin asked in her best business manner.
The old man stopped and replied, "I am he. What business do you have with us?"
Rin pulled her straw basket from her back and opened the lid. "I come from Kagome-sama, bearing medicines and some small spiritual relics."
"Who is Kagome?" The village elder frowned in confusion. "You'd best be on your way; we have no money for a peddler's wares."
Closing the lid on the basket, Rin explained, still maintaining her professionalism, even in the face of the old man's slight to Kagome. "Kagome-sama is a powerful priestess. She stepped into the position after…", her mask faltered but she recovered and continued, "...after Kaede-sama passed on. There had been requests from this region for medicines and small talismans. I bring those items on her behalf."
The old man's brow furrowed even further. "I do recall the name of Kaede-sama and I am saddened to hear of her passing. However, we cannot accept these items, regardless of the good intention. He swept his arm to gesture at the village, "We have been attacked by bandits throughout the winter and now we have next to nothing. We have no means to pay you."
Rin smiled. "Kagome-sama does not require payment; just knowing that these were of use to you is more than enough for her."
"You would mock us and our strife?" Rin glanced as the old man's voice rose. "We may not have anything, but we still have our pride. Do you think us so far gone that we cannot get by without the pity of some unknown priestess?"
Despite having had this conversation many times in the past four months, Rin was still getting irritated. "Kagome-sama does not care about getting paid. She just wants to know that she was able to help you all in your time of need."
The old man glared, "And I am stating that we do not need a stranger's charity!"
By this point, their raised voices were drawing curious glances from doors that had suddenly become propped open.
Rin dropped her professional pretense. She understood that it was embarrassing to accept generosity from someone outside the village, and even more so to receive it gratuitously. That being said, this man's stubbornness was frustrating.
"I meant no offense, but I cannot leave this village without providing you with assistance." Rin smiled. "Do you think we could come to some sort of arrangement, perhaps some food and a place to stay for the night in exchange for some medicine?"
The old man seemed about to object, but a young couple leapt out from one of the homes, bearing a sick child. "Please! We'll give you some food, just please, help our son."
Rin turned to look at the child, whose breath was shallow. His skin had light sheen from his fever-induced sweat. "Please show me to your home. I'll administer the remedy there."
They hurried back to the couple's house, but several other families were looking on from the doorway and windows. Everyone clustered around as Rin crushed several of the herbs from her store and mixed them into a tea. Carefully, she fed the draught to the child. After a few minutes, the boy's breathing became regular and his complexion regained some color.
Rin wrapped some extra pieces of the herb in a piece of paper and handed them to the mother. "Crush these and add them to his tea at least twice a day. He should be alright in a couple days."
The mother and father bowed low. "Thank you! We didn't know what to do when he collapsed."
"It really is no trouble. " Rin felt a tug on her kimono and saw a small child who had snuck in. "What is it?"
"Will you look at my mommy?" The little girl's eyes were filled with worry.
Rin nodded. "Where is your mother?" The little girl gestured outside the house, so Rin packed up her things and readied to follow the child.
Just before she stepped out, the mother of the boy stopped her. "Please, when you are finished, come back. We will give you food and shelter for the night, to repay you for what you've done for our son."
"Of course," Rin smiled and then set out to help.
Hours later, Rin returned exhausted from treating many of the villagers. She could barely stay awake during the meal and was grateful when her hostess showed her to a futon. Minutes after she dropped into bed, her eyelids grew heavy and she was asleep soon after.
In her dream, Rin was young again, traveling carefree with Sesshoumaru through a field of golden flowers. Then suddenly, the field of flowers vanished and the trees were stripped of their leaves. Confused, Rin looked around and recognized it as Inuyasha's village. Naraku's miasma had destroyed all living things in the area and nothing had started to grow back yet.
She realized that Sesshoumaru had not stopped and she trotted after him, but she could not get close to him. He turned around and said, "Rin. Stay here."
Rin shook her head and started to run. "Wait, Sesshoumaru-sama, don't leave Rin here!" She tripped on a stone and fell, but landed on soft grass. The village was green again. This must have been three years after the jewel had disappeared, just before Kagome returned.
Rin picked herself up and ran after Sesshoumaru. He was even farther away. He turned again and held out a hand to her. Eagerly, twelve year old Rin reached out as well, but before she could get close, he said, "I must go away on business. I do not have time to visit you." Then he turned and continued walking.
"Wait! Sesshoumaru-sama! It's okay if Sesshoumaru-sama does not have time to visit Rin! Rin can wait!" Just as she started to gain on him, she stepped into a river and found herself submerged. When she surfaced, time again had passed. Rin's fifteen-year old self clamored out of the water. Off to the side, the lights of the village festival glowed in the distance.
Sesshoumaru spared her a glance and her clothing was suddenly replaced with a gorgeous kimono. He turned away for a final time. "Good-bye, Rin."
"Sesshoumaru-sama!" Rin called after him, but the dream had dissolved into a watery confusion.
A sudden clamor outside startled her awake. Outside the sounds of harsh yells mingled with terrified screams. She silently crawled out of bed, towards the window, and peeked into the darkness.
The street was filled with villagers, running in fear. There were also strangers, with armor and weapons. One stopped and turned to look straight at Rin, who dropped below the edge of the window sill.
She looked to the other occupants of the house, and found them huddled in a corner. Rin moved closer to them, but was only halfway when a figure in the doorway cast his shadow into the room. Rin recognized him as the bandit from only moments before who had spotted her through the crack in the window.
He reached forward and grabbed Rin by her hair. "Well aren't you a pretty one?"
Rin winced as he pulled on her hair and called out to the family, "Go! I'll keep him busy!" They hesitated. "Go! I'll be fine."
The bandit swung his axe to block their escape. "No one's going anywhere."
Rin reached in to her obi and pulled out a small, sheathed knife. Quickly, she thrust the blade down into the man's foot, while reaching towards his face with her nails. Cursing, he staggered back, clutching his eyes and reaching to pull the knife out.
"Go, now!" Rin shouted at the clustered family. The couple gathered their son and ran out the door. Rin scrambled to the door as quickly as she could.
Just a few steps from the door, the bandit grabbed her again. This time, he held Rin's knife against her throat. "I'd like to see you try that again, girlie."
Rin bit into his arm hard, causing him to loosen his grip. She twisted out of his grasp and started running into the forest.
The forest was dark, but she had sure footing. She slowed her pace and turned to look back at the village. She needed to double back soon, to see if she could help any of the other villagers escape.
She crouched behind a tree and surveyed her options. Fires were breaking throughout the village and all the villagers were fleeing into the woods, many under pursuit by bandits. It looked like the far end of the village was largely unaffected. If there was a chance of saving anyone, it was there.
Preparing to head out, she stood and turned. A large branch swung out of the darkness, aimed at her head. She lost her balance as the blow connected and dropped to the ground.
The bandit stepped out of the shadows gripping the branch menacingly. "I found you, girlie."
Rin tried to focus on the man in front of her, but her vision was blurry and everything was spinning. She felt her instincts telling her to flee and she dragged herself a couple of feet away from the man, but the man's foot came down hard between her shoulder blades. She winced as he dug his heel into her back.
"I don't think so." He pulled his axe off his back. "You're a feisty one, that's for sure. I didn't think you'd pull that stunt with the knife." Raising the axe above his head, he grinned wildly "Normally, I'd say we should have a little fun, but you've made me mad, girlie, and I don't forgive, or forget."
Still disoriented, Rin clawed at the ground in front of her, looking for something that could be used as a weapon, but found nothing. She closed her eyes tightly and waited for the fall of the axe to bring the darkness.
But instead she felt the pressure from her back disappear and then heard an uncomfortable gurgling noise a short distance away. Suddenly, she felt herself being lifted off the ground, a maneuver that sent spots in front of her eyes. She could feel the cold steel of armor on one side and the warmth of cloth on the other, but her vision was still blurry.
With great effort, Rin turned her head upwards, to see who her hero (or captor) was. Feeling the darkness of unconsciousness creeping in, Rin caught only a glimpse of white hair and golden eyes. Relief washed over her as she relaxed and let herself fall asleep.