A Path Shadowed

 

Faster, fasterÖbefore they see meÖfaster for heavenís sake!

He stumbled along, blindly oblivious to sharp branches that grazed his arms and tear at his sleeves, his mind a single furnace that fulminated with all-pervading fear. Distant harsh voices yelled at him to stop, stop right now if he did not want to get hurt, but he ignored them, for he believed them not.

A slab of rock he did not notice tripped him and he fell sprawling, his face slamming into soil. Gasping, he scrambled to his feet when his instincts screamed danger. He looked down. Beyond the rock the earth was no more. The rock marked the edge of some overhanging bluff. Roughly twenty feet below water gurgled and flowed, unconcerned of his plight.

The voices were gaining on him. He held his breath, committed himself, and leaped. There was a sickening sensation as the water rushed up to meet him. The impact of his fall obliterated his consciousness.

 

A cool hand on his brow was the first thing that got through his befuddled brain and sore body. That, and murmured words of encouragement, "Relax, you are going to be all right." The hand came and went intermittently and he wanted to call it, so that it would stay with him always. But he was too weak to keep awake, so he drifted back into darkness.

As the darkness eventually receded, his senses began to function. Soft breeze was sighing somewhere near and birds were chirping in the distance. He was covered with a white blanket up to his chin. His ears also caught a girlís singsong voice, speaking to a man who answered in a serene tone.

Where is this? he asked himself, disoriented. Did someone rescue me? Oh, my head!

"Hello."

Something moved at the edge of his vision and his heart stopped. Standing in the doorway was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on. She wore red, and her silky midnight black hair was secured into a thick cable-like plait. He could only stare as she, diffident but curious, glided near.

"We found you in the river. Are you hurt? What is your name?" She spoke in an accent that told of years of living in the mountain. Closer she was even lovelier.

"Iím all right." He winced as his back throbbed, giving lie to his words.

"Shunrei."

Both he and the girl looked at the door. A tall young man was entering. His long hair was the same shade as the girlís, and he had eyes that reminded the patient on the bed of an ancient, bottomless lake. This was, he reflected, a person who had seen and understood more than an ordinary human ever could. Certainly no one to fool with. Were they brother and sister, or husband and wife? They seemed too young for the latter but in some areas girls got married as early as twelve years old. He watched as the tall youth approached.

"Shiryu, heís all right, I think," Shunrei said.

The youth called Shiryu nodded. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

Much better after seeing the goddess almost escaped the patientís mouth before he realized that would be the ultimate blunder. He supported himself on his elbows and sat up. His muscles ached with the action, but he did not sense any internal damage. That was a good sign. "As you can see," he said, smiling.

Shiryu did not smile back, but his sober eyes showed approval. "Just shock, I suppose. Is there anything you canít move? Anything sprained or out of joint?" He sounded like a doctor examining a sick man, with a doctorís brisk professional manner.

"No, everythingís in place."

There was an awkward pause. "What is your name?" Shunrei ventured.

The patient, thrilled by the very fact that she addressed him, said, "They call me Kai."

Shiryu clasped his hands in front of his chest. "How do you do?"

He returned the greeting, but his attention was drawn perpetually to Shunrei. She stood a little behind Shiryu, saying nothing, her large liquid eyes kind. He could not get his mind off those eyes.

 

Kai was healing rapidly, to his sorrow. He wanted to have an excuse to linger here and see Shunrei every morning. She always came not long after sunrise with his breakfast and some herbal medicine she concocted herself. Sometimes Shiryu was with her, asking Kai how he was doing. Kai noticed that he did not smile much, and he certainly never laughed. Shiryu had a certain dignity that eluded Kaiís understanding. The youth was special, no doubt about it.

These past few days, however, Kai did not see him. He asked Shunrei one morning, "Is Shiryu gone someplace?"

"Yes, heís in Japan, visiting his friends."

Kai could not contain his curiosity any longer. "Is he your husband?" It would not surprise him if Shiryu were. He and Shunrei looked so well together that one could only think of years of intense relationship between the two of them.

Shunrei blushed daintily, which, Kai thought in fascination, made her all the more beautiful. "One day he would be, I hope."

So they were not wedded yet. Perhaps there was a slim opportunity for Kai. Then he kicked himself mentally: if his evaluation of Shiryu was correct, he was not worth one tenth of the tall youth. "What does Shiryu do? I mean, for a living? Iím sorry if Iím being inquisitive, but you both have been very kind to me, and Iíve got to know at least a few things about you."

Her hesitation was not lost on him. "Odd jobs," she said at length. "But actually we donít need many worldly possessions, so Shiryu can just live here and grow a farm for all I care. Iíd be much happier that way."

Aha! So whatever job it was Shiryu had did not agree well with her, did it? But what could that job be? Kai decided to discover it on his own later.

 

He was strong enough to stand on his feet, so he took a walk outside the hut. The day was pleasantly cool and bright. He had never been so glad he was still in one piece.

Everywhere he looked mountains loomed, majestic and aloof, against the sky. He must have been chased a really long way to end up here. Did his pursuers know he had been rescued, or did they think he died when he plunged into the river? He wished for the second possibility. He did not want them to come while Shiryu was away Ė or at any other time, for that matter. By himself he would not be adequate protection for Shunrei.

He was threading his way through a path overgrown with bushes when two people sprang from one of them. Jolted, he stopped in his tracks. In a flash of instant recognition he saw that they were Pockmark Han and Lao Wu. They were among his pursuers the other day.

Lao Wu grinned, revealing broken teeth. "Thought you managed to fool us, didnít you? Weíve been watching you. We knew that a couple fished you out of the river, and now the husband is away on a trip."

Kai felt his spine go cold. "If you dare lay your filthy hands on ShunreiÖ"

"We wonít, but our friends might. They are on their way to her house. Come now, Kai, surely you wouldnít mind sharing such a beauty with us?"

Paralyzing fear made him splutter, "You bunch of cowardly, despicable dogs!" His legs wavered but he forced them to support him. "Donít you touch her!"

Pockmark Han gave an ugly laugh. "What can you do about it? Now, while our friends are occupied, weíll settle the score with you." His hand came out from behind his back holding a wicked dagger. It was not very long but most definitely effective. Lao Wu fumbled in his sash and a similar dagger appeared in his grip.

I have to return! Kai thought wildly. If they ever harm Shunrei, I wonít be able to live with it! But how do I do it? Iím still not very well, unarmed, and they have weapons!

"Scared, Kai?" jeered Pockmark Han.

That stung him. "Yes," he said through gritted teeth, "for Shunreiís safety."

"So you donít mind if we cut you up, do you?" The last word was barely out of Lao Wuís mouth when he lunged at Kai.

Kai sidestepped, but as he made to leap, his side screamed in pain. Gasping, he staggered drunkenly to the right and fell, the tip of Lao Wuís dagger missing him by an inch. Lao Wu cursed and swung again. This time Kai rolled away, every part of him singing out in a harmony of hurt. His head was dizzy from so much strain on his physique.

Something moved toward him, and though he did not see it clearly, he was instinctively aware that it was Pockmark Han. Kai gritted his teeth and commanded his brain to ignore any signal of pain. He grabbed the nearest rock, which was not very big but had a jagged surface, and hurled it with all his might at Pockmark Han. The rock connected with a satisfying thump with Pockmark Hanís face. There was a crack and Pockmark Han screamed, dropping his dagger and clutching at his nose. Blood oozed from between his fingers.

Kai climbed to his feet, shaking all over. His shoulders felt as if they would fall off their sockets. Lao Wu was staring at Pockmark Han, his eyes round with disbelief and horror. As Kai tottered away, Lao Wuís attention turned to him.

"Where are you running to?" he yelled, coming after Kai.

"Get out of my way!" Kaiís head was splitting from combined agony and anxiety.

As a reply Lao Wu advanced on him Ė his movement was agile, to Kaiís dismay Ė and the dagger made a descending arc. Kai willed himself not to faint or lose his wits. When Lao Wu was close enough, Kai evaded the dagger and sent a swinging kick at Lao Wuís abdomen. His heel hit his opponent in the solar plexus.

Lao Wu grunted and doubled over. Kai brought his fist down on Lao Wuís nape with all the strength he could muster. Lao Wu crumpled onto the ground and stayed inert. Behind him, Pockmark Han was still screaming unintelligibly, his nose a scarlet spurt.

Now that the immediate danger was past, Kaiís stomach heaved. He fought down his nausea grimly and stumbled away, praying he could make it back to the hut. He did not know what he would do there, but he did know that he would not let Shunrei come to harm.

 

She was standing in front of the hut when he arrived, and the apprehension on her face changed to relief when she saw him. "Kai!" she exclaimed. "Iím so glad youíre safe!"

Arenít I supposed to be the one saying that? Kai wondered, and that was when his feet refused to carry him further. He collapsed like a doll minus its stuffing.

"Kai!" Shunrei was on his side in an instant. "Kai, are you all right?"

"I should be the one asking you that," he muttered, unable even to raise his head to look at her properly.

"You mean those ruffians?"

He could not conceal his astonishment. "They were here?" He would not have guessed that a girl like Shunrei, seemingly so delicate and fragile, could take down a bunch of thugs single-handedly. She did not even look tired in the slightest bit.

"Yes, a couple of minutes ago. Master defeated them one by one."

"Master?" he echoed stupidly.

"Shiryuís teacher. He lives nearby."

So Shiryu had a teacher, who looked after Shunrei while Shiryu was away. And Kai was trying to play the hero. Some hero. He uttered a weak laugh.

"Let me carry you inside," Shunrei was saying. "Who were those bandits anyway? Were they the ones who pushed you into the river?"

Suddenly his lips felt numb. He wanted to pour forth the entire story, but that would be selfish. He would be unburdening himself Ė at Shunreiís expense. Need she hear why he was hunted all the way here? Would he tell her? Dare he tell her?

"Itís fine if you donít want me to know," she answered herself. "The most important thing is that they didnít kill you. Come on, let me help you in."

But I do want you to know, he wanted to say. I want you to know that my father was a farmer. He worked on a land inherited from his ancestors and we were all happy there Ė my parents, my two little brothers and me. Then the greedy local landlord coveted my fatherís land, but Father refused to sell it. One night the landlord ordered his minions to burn our house. Everyone died but me. I swore to take revenge, even if the cost was my own death.

Shunrei was hauling him up and he complied, his mind wandering. When he was on his two feet again, she said, "Youíll need more rest, I think. Did you run all the way here when you discovered they were coming?"

He could only nod.

"You shouldnít have."

"Should I let them burn this hut and maybe you too?" His voice was harsher than he intended. Seeing Shunrei blink, he relented. "Iím sorry. You and Shiryu have done a lot for me, and I only bring trouble for you."

Once inside, Shunrei firmly put him to bed and would not listen to any objection. "Lie down and sleep. What would Shiryu say if he knew I didnít take proper care of you?" And she left.

Kai gazed up at the ceiling. He breathed a sigh. If only he could assure himself that Shunrei would be forever secure. Those thugs had friends, and they would arrive in dozens. Shiryuís teacher was only one man, he would not be able to drive them all off. The only thing for him to do was to leave. Now.

At least my parents and my brothersí deaths are avenged, he thought. I spent days and days watching the landlordís house, studying every detail, every personís habit. Then one night I slunk in and stabbed the landlordís only son. The landlord saw me and from then on his men never give up in trying to find me.

Did the boy live? Kai did not know, and did not want to. He had stabbed him at the base of his spine, which would probably make the five-year-old a cripple, or bleed to death. A twinge of guilt stirred: the child had had nothing to do with the destruction of his family Ė why should he take the blame? Then he conforted himself with the thought that the accident would cause the landlord to think twice before he robbed anyone elseís land.

Still it did not erase the memory of the boyís shrieks as he fled the room, high-pitched notes of pure dreadful agony. He shook his head: what was past could not be changed. He would not get anywhere by letting his regret gnaw at him.

Cautiously he got off the bed. His body, just beginning to enjoy a respite, sent rebellious messages against the idea of walking to his brain, but he did not care. He had to get out of here now. Being here would only bring difficulty upon his benefactors.

ShunreiÖKai closed his eyes. He knew he would never again find a girl like her. She was too perfect, too ethereal. And she belonged here with Shiryu. He had to get used to that.

In spite of what his logic said, the prospect of never seeing her for the rest of his days made a knife twist in his innards. What would she think of him if he vanished without a word? Would she consider him an ingratiate? Better that, than bringing disaster upon her head.

He went out of the hut. Shunrei was nowhere in sight. The fresh mountain air suddenly did not smell so fresh. He looked around one last time, vaguely hoping to see her. But there was not a single soul there. He listened but caught no sound.

Farewell, he said silently. Shunrei, you wouldnít want to help a child murderer recover, so I go. I thank you and wish you all the happiness in the world. I could never repay your kindness.

With that, he turned his back and walked away, his steps light. But not his heart.