Candle in the Dark
"Shunrei!" Shiryu cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. "Shunrei, where are you?"
Full dark had come; stars were dotting the sky along with a gibbous moon. Shiryu edged his way carefully along a small ridge, not wanting to miss a footing and hurtle down. He repeated his shout a couple of times but there was no answer. The only sounds were the faint echo of his own voice and the wind.
Three hours ago Shunrei had excused herself, saying that before dinner she wanted to pick some flowers and herbs she had spotted yesterday. Shiryu offered to go with her, but she refused, assuring him she would be all right. She had not reappeared since then. Thinking she must be collecting a great amount of herbs, Shiryu thought no more about it. When the sun set and still she did not return home, his anxiety grew sharp. He decided to look for her.
He had surfed the area around the waterfall to no avail. He was moving farther and farther away from the hut, hardly realizing it and would not even care. Mount Rozan was his home – no matter how far he went, he had never got lost. It was Shunrei’s home too, hence his worry. If she was not lost, the only thing hindering her from going home would be an accident.
He stopped and looked down at the sloping ground, trying to adjust his sight to the darkness below. Could Shunrei be somewhere down there? "Shunrei!"
To his relief, he heard a reply. "Shiryu! I’m here!"
"Hold on!" he called back, already skimming his way down. Her voice had come from the left. He hoped she had not broken anything, though that was what probably happened. "Are you all right?"
There was a pause that sent a flutter of fear into him. "I suppose so," came back Shunrei’s voice, nearer now.
He kept moving until he distinguished a shape in the dark, blending in with the surroundings. The shape waved at him and he hastened toward it. It was indeed Shunrei, sitting on the ground. Her basket of herbs lay next to her. She was pale but still managed a smile when she saw him. Shiryu knelt down, peering at her.
"What is it?" he said.
"I slipped down and I think I sprained my ankle," she explained, half apologetically. "That was about an hour ago. Sorry. I guess I was a bit careless."
He saw that she had rolled the left leg of her trousers up to mid-shin. "Is that all? I mean, there’s nothing broken, is there?"
"I don’t think so. What do we do?" She sounded apprehensive.
Little though he knew of sprained ankles, he did know that they had to be set straight quickly and completely. The problem was he had never done it before, and he could not afford to make a mistake here and now, where the nearest house might be miles away. He touched her ankle, feeling it gingerly. One side was swelling. "Does it hurt much?"
"No…not very much, that is."
Shiryu stood up, frowning in concentration. If he carried her back to the hut, her feet would dangle free, which could not possibly be helpful for the ankle. On the other hand, he could not leave her to get help either. He sat down beside Shunrei, still frowning.
A tentative touch on his arm made him look at her. "I’m sorry," she said softly.
He gave her a brief smile. "It’s not your fault. I’m sure you didn’t intend to fall down the ridge…Listen! There are people coming. Can you hear them?"
Sure enough, there were vague snatches of conversation growing closer. Taking heart, Shiryu shot to his feet and narrowed his eyes. He could make out two men sauntering along the top of the ridge, talking leisurely.
"Sir! Sir, excuse me!" Shiryu shouted. "My friend has fallen down the ridge and hurt her leg. Could you please…"
To his immense surprise, the men broke into a run and dashed off, not giving him a chance to finish his sentence. So unexpected was this that for a moment Shiryu could only stare after their vanishing forms. Then he sank back into the ground near Shunrei.
"They didn’t even look at me," he wondered. "Did I say something wrong?"
Shunrei shook her head. "They were perhaps just scared and thought you were a bandit. I heard there were bandits in this part of the mountainside."
"Well, that doesn’t solve our problem." The mention of bandits increased his alarm. He could not leave Shunrei alone here to be an easy prey for criminals of any kind. Shiryu glanced around, trying to locate a flicker of light, a movement, anything that might indicate the presence of others. He searched in vain; it was like truly being in the middle of nowhere. Sighing, he got up again. "Shunrei, I’m going to look for help. Do you think you’ll be fine here on your own?"
She nodded. "I will."
He could tell that she was not as convinced as she strove to seem, but he had no other choice. "I’ll be back soon," he promised, and strode away.
Although he was unfamiliar with this area, Shiryu estimated that there had to be some houses nearby. The two men he had seen earlier could not live too far away. But beyond the place where Shunrei had fallen there were only wild grass and trees. No sign of human habitation was visible.
After looking about futilely for any house – any person, for that matter – Shiryu gave up. He would try to bind Shunrei’s ankle tightly, then carry her back to the hut. The longer they lingered here, the worse the ankle would be. He swirled around and retraced his steps.
Five minutes passed before Shiryu halted in his track. He had an uneasy feeling that he was not going the way he had. He remembered very well that previously he had passed two trees growing so closely together that they were almost touching. He did not see those trees now. Could he have made a wrong turn? He looked over his shoulder, debating with himself whether or not to return when a sound whispered from a tree nearest to him.
Shiryu’s head snapped around, but he saw no one. Nevertheless, he knew it had not been an illusion. Neither had it been the wind – it had sounded more like a scuffle of feet. Bandits? He wished it was not a Cosmos-charged enemy, since he was not wearing his Cloth. His eyes traveled from tree to crouching there, his senses strung tight to pick up the smallest indication that he was not alone.
The sound came again, a little louder this time, from his right. Shiryu looked from the corner of his vision. There was somebody else there – but whoever it was exuded no Cosmos. He rotated slowly on his heels, ready for anything.
It was a little girl, about six or seven. She was dressed in a peasant’s simple black clothes, her pigtails straggling down her chest. The first thing Shiryu noticed about her, however, was that her face was remarkably white. She clutched at a wooden doll, staring up at him, not blinking, not speaking.
Shiryu walked closer to her. Still she did not move. He smiled and stooped slightly. "Are you lost, little sister?"
She nodded, solemn eyes fixed on him.
"That makes the two of us. Where do you live?" Chances were her house was near. He could ask her folks for help.
"In the village." Shiryu started at her voice; it was deep and resonant, not at all a little girl’s. "What are you doing here, brother?"
Somehow he was beginning to feel unsettled, which was foolish. What danger could this child represent? Unless of course she was actually a shape-changer like Lymnades Kasa, but he did not suppose it was likely. No, she was just an ordinary girl. "My friend injured herself and needs help. Do you know where I can get some?"
The little girl’s gaze, which did not leave his face for an instant, mellowed. "Injured? Is it serious?"
"Not very, but she can’t walk right now."
She dropped her eyes then. "The nearest village is an hour’s walk away," she said in that strange, adult voice. "Is your home very far?"
"About that distance." Shiryu felt his heart plummet. Help was no nearer than he had expected. Now, whose safety should he put in priority, Shunrei’s or this little girl’s? He decided he had better bring the girl to Shunrei, and there to work out the solution together. He could not very well let her wander in the dark all by herself, when bandits might be lurking. "Come with me to my friend, she’ll be glad to meet you. What’s your name? I’m Shiryu."
"They call me meimei," the girl said.
Which meant little sister. The whole thing was getting odder and odder – why should a little girl like this refuse to tell her name? Shiryu shelved this matter away from his mind. "My friend fell to the bottom of a ridge. I don’t know this area well, so I forget which way to go. Can you show me, meimei?"
Without replying the little girl marched off, wooden doll hanging from one hand. Shiryu followed her, surprised that those short legs could move as fast as his own. The girl did not hesitate either; she took firm steps in a definite course. Soon they were weaving their way among the hulking trees.
Shiryu noticed that the wind was rising, and it was getting colder. He had to get to Shunrei forthwith, then. He hoped the little girl understood this area thoroughly. One thing still bothered him, though: why was the girl not anxious about getting home herself? If the nearest village was, as she had said, an hour’s walk away, had she not better go home right now?
"Would you want me to walk you home first?" he offered, falling into step beside her. "Your parents will be very worried about you."
She appeared to be startled at this. "Oh, that’s very kind of you, brother. But your friend needs help more than I do. I can find my own way home. Don’t fret about me."
"But you said you were lost?"
"Not as lost as you are, no."
He should have been more curious, but he was too busy taking note of the path they were taking as she spoke. He recognized it – it was indeed the one he had taken. At least he was not going to get lost for the second time.
"This friend of yours," the girl said, "is she a very close friend?"
"You can say that, yes. When I first arrived here, she was very nice to me, until now. She sometimes doesn’t agree with what I do, but she’s always there when I need her."
"When you first arrived here? Where are you from?"
"Japan. But this is my home too. I feel like I belong here. I have soul brothers back in Japan, but this country is my place."
She fell silent. Shiryu did not attempt to continue the conversation either. What an unusual child she was, he thought. After he had tended to Shunrei, he would take her home. It could not be right for a little girl to be out at this time of the night.
A scream pierced the air, and Shiryu halted, shocked. He knew the voice too well – it was Shunrei’s. The scream sounded like one of pain, too. The little girl had also stopped.
"Your friend?" she asked.
For a moment he did not hear her, so busy was he trying not to panic. When he could, he said, "Apparently." The calmness with which he spoke surprised him. "Can we move quicker, meimei? It seems my friend has had some trouble."
The little girl pointed forward. "Just go straight ahead, and you’ll be where she is. Goodbye, brother." With that, she sauntered off.
This was so uncalled for that Shiryu’s calmness deserted him. "What are you doing?" he yelled, torn between fright at what might have happened to Shunrei and confusion at the little girl’s attitude.
She gave him a cool look. "Your friend is fine. I guarantee that. You are a very fine person, brother. Take care of yourself." She dissolved into the enfolding dark.
Shiryu stood rooted on the spot, then hastened away, full of foreboding. Shunrei was in trouble, the little girl was too extraordinary for comprehension, and he was concerned with both of them. However, the little girl had brought him this far, and he did not want any delay in finding out what had happened to Shunrei.
Shunrei stood up when she heard him coming. "Shiryu!" To his astonishment, she limped toward him, carrying her basket.
"Shunrei?" He was both relieved and puzzled to see her on her feet again.
"Can’t find anyone?" She tilted her head to look beyond him.
He recalled the scream. If it had been Shunrei, why was she all right now? "Shunrei, a while back I heard a scream. I thought it was you, but…" He gestured at her feet.
"But it was me."
Shiryu’s eyes sprang wide. "You?" was all he could get out.
In the faint moonlight he saw her blush. "After you were gone, I sat here thinking that you might not find a soul here. Then this…this old man came along. It must’ve been obvious that my ankle was sprained, because the first thing he asked was how bad it was. I told him everything. Then he knelt down, took my ankle and set it straight." Her blush deepened. "I’m afraid I made some noise. It hurt terribly, but it’s perfectly fine now. The old man got up and left the way you just came. Didn’t you meet him?"
For some reason the hair on his nape stirred. "Did he tell you what he was doing here?"
Shunrei frowned. "No. It was rather mysterious. He just popped out of nowhere, fixed my ankle, and went away. I didn’t even have a chance to thank him. He did say one thing, though. Something like…meimei sent him."
The hair on Shiryu’s nape positively stood on end. In a flash he remembered that the little girl had also come out of nowhere, behaved a trifle strangely and disappeared just as abruptly. Then there were the two men he had seen, the ones who did not even look at him. Perhaps they were scared that he might have been…He grabbed Shunrei’s hand.
"Shiryu, what is it?" she exclaimed, sensing his agitation.
He forced himself to relax. "Nothing. It’s getting late, though, we’d better go home now. Can you walk far on that ankle?"
"I think so, yes. Not very fast, but I’ll manage."
"Let’s go, then. Watch where you’re going."
As they slowly climbed up the ridge, Shiryu threw a final backward glance. The trees were silent in the dark, hiding whatever it was they hid. He waited for a sign of another living presence but perceived none. After a while he returned his attention to the ridge, supporting Shunrei as she ascended carefully, her basket slung across one arm.
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