Disclaimer: I definitely don't own Sesshomaru nor Rin…probably should be smacked (but not sued) for what I'm about to do to them…don't own Shogakukan Publishing, nor 'InuYasha', either.
A/N: This is a one-shot, Sess/Modern!Rin fic, inspired by a thesis on the disappearance of faeries in modern times; the author suggested that the denizens of Faery, who were once giants in stature, shrank in direct proportion to their declining power and influence, and eventually they were forced from their hereditary lands to inhabit remote locales, such as small islands…
And yes, the type of house featured in this fic actually exists on private islands in Japan…an acquaintance of mine is the architect for a custom builder.
You may assume that Rin is a reincarnation and Sesshomaru is supernatural…if the first person POV makes you cranky, take it up with the 500-lb plot bunny named 'Al' who suggested this storyline in the first place. He's nursing a hangover right now, so be careful how you approach him…
This fic is rated 'M' for mature themes. It is definitely not for young readers!
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"Fifteen minutes to landing, Michikoto-san." The voice crackles with static in my headset; I nod, without taking my eyes from the scenery unrolling beneath the float plane's wing. We are flying low over the sharply indented coastline of northern Honshu, the wintry-grey Pacific Ocean surging under the pontoons. Early that morning, I had flown from Tokyo to Morioka, then transferred to a small regional airline that took me to the coastal town of Rikuzentakata (the length of the town's name is in direct inverse proportion to its size and importance), and was now bouncing in the air currents south of that burgeoning metropolis, my trusty laptop in hand, heading for a small private island to spend the winter writing The Great Japanese Novel.
Not to mention hide from the trainwreck also known as my personal life.
Since we will be spending the winter together, perhaps we should become acquainted? I am Rinako Michikoto, twenty-eight years old, assistant to the assistant editor of a large Japanese publishing house based in Tokyo. I'm known as 'Rin' to my friends, and I have to warn you, if it weren't for my buddy Chi-chan's influence, I'd be considered downright boring. I'm a book geek. My main love is reading; as far as I'm concerned, any book is a good one. I can happily lose myself in worlds of magic and wonder.
Hey, it beats my reality.
Part of the reason I'm on this plane right now are my parents. This gives me a chance to move out of the apartment and away from their carping for a while. They had starry-eyed expectations that I would have a high-flying career in the diplomatic corps if I had a better grasp of English, so I was sent to Canada to stay with a host family and attend college. They think it's a total come-down that I, with my expensive language education, am working in an office and not off somewhere exotic…I think they wanted better bragging rights because one of their friends has been dining out on the fact that their daughter is some kind of official person on the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Committee and has met the President of the United States.
However, the time spent learning English stood me in good stead once I'd graduated with a literature major; I was thrilled to be hired by Shogakukan Publishing, one of the largest publishers in Japan. I'm currently in the Fine Arts division, working with books about Japanese painters and woodcut artists, among other things. The manga division is where the action is, and all of us assistants long to be there; my friend Chiyo lords it over the rest of us, because she gets to see the new editions of our favourite stories before they are published every Sunday.
The trainwreck? Oh…that…
That would be my recent divorce from my university sweetheart, Izumi Michikoto. We met soon after I returned from overseas, fell in passionately in love, and were married while we were still students. Both of our respective sets of parents were summarily unimpressed; so much so, that neither of them would put us up while we finished our undergrad degrees, forcing us to scrimp and live in some pretty questionable housing until we finished. His wealthy parents thought I was a gold-digging nobody; my parents were convinced he was a sleazy rich boy looking for respectability. We were from opposite sides of the social spectrum, but all we needed was love and each other, right?
Should have seen it coming. Izumi articled at a prestigious law firm, and before you could say 'social climbing' three times fast, he had taken up with the daughter of one of the firm's senior partners and filed for a divorce. Of course, my parents were horrified; now I was over twenty-five and certain to be living with them for the rest of my natural life, because who would want 'damaged goods'? I've heard enough moaning about the 'shame' visited on our family to make me vomit; and that, dear reader, is what this trip to some godforsaken island on the coast of the back of beyond is really all about.
I'm running away from reality…and please, don't stop me.
Oops, sorry. Didn't mean to sound like such a whiner.
I accidentally found my escape hatch when Chiyo, she of the much-envied manga division, pounced on me at a company book launch during the summer. She dragged me over to her date, an older, heavy-set man whose expensive Italian suit breathed a certain tax bracket and breathlessly informed him that I was the 'perfect candidate for the job', because I was old enough to be responsible (ha!), wasn't married (any more…) and wanted to take a leave from my day job for a writing sabbatical (I did?). In short, I was perfect. Actually, I was perfectly stunned at her audacity, but what he had to say intrigued me. He turned out to be the Japanese contractor who was hired by fabulously wealthy families to have summer homes built on their private islands. Of course, these aren't little thatched bamboo cottages; not by a long shot.
These are custom-designed lodges, huge masterpieces of red and yellow cedar logged, drafted and built in British Columbia, disassembled, packed in shipping containers like giant jigsaw puzzles, freighted across the Pacific and reassembled on picturesque islands sprinkled up and down the Japanese coast. Of course, the most sought-after locales are in the sea channel cutting between the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. You'll notice that these are all on the southern end of Japan, where it's warmer? How did I end up nearly on Hokkaido, at the other end of the scale, temperature-wise?
Apparently the family that had this particular house built is a little eccentric. Well, they'd have to be, to hire a single woman to be their winter caretaker. I have to be a bit loopy, to take this on. I'll be stuck on this island, except for a floatplane visit to drop off supplies every two weeks, for a total of four months. Just me, my laptop, and whatever wildlife happens to be frolicking in the vicinity, which is hopefully cute, fuzzy and vegetarian.
"There it is, Michikoto-san…we're on our final approach." I follow the pilot's gloved finger as he points at a dock jutting out into the water, and as the plane banks, I can see the house set into the trees at the base of a ridge that runs along the island like the spine of some primeval monster. The plane skims along the wave tops, throttles back and settles in the light chop, then taxis up to the dock. The pilot, Jiro, cuts the engine, his co-pilot scrambles to secure us, and we are here.
Here is pretty damn remote. I stood on the dock, staring up at my new home. Only the topmost roof peak of the house was visible from down here, that and a bit of a massive stonework chimney. It was the ridge behind the house that caught my attention. It was tall and steep, the trees disappearing about halfway up to expose the towering rock face until it vanished into the misty clouds that were the reason why the plane had flown at such a low altitude much of the way here. "Here you go, ma'am…I'll give you a quick tour."
Somewhere in my luggage, now being piled up on the dock, is a three or four page, closely-typed list of responsibilities that could be summarized thus:
1. do not let the generator run out of fuel
2. keep your quarters clean
3. keep the pathways clear of snow
4. do not lock yourself out
5. do not set the house on fire
There was a few other do's and don'ts, too, but they dealt with mundane things like garbage disposal and the intricacies of the sewage system. You don't need to know about that. I barely understood it, but figured that help was only a radio-phone call away if something really went haywire.
We each grabbed a few of my bags, trundled off the dock and up the gravelled path to the house. It was a fair distance, and I was puffing by the time we arrived at the garden entrance. My jaw bounced off my chest when I got a really good look at the place I'd call home for four months.
It was huge. Several families could subdivide it, and still never see each other. Golden-toned vertical logs formed columns stretching from the foundations to the steeply-pitched roofline, and the spaces between them were filled with wood-framed plate glass. At least four stone chimneys poked out of the cedar-shake roof. I think the style was called 'Whistler Craftsman' or something like that; I had seen photos of multi-million dollar lodges at the resort of Whistler in British Columbia. This place looked just like that, but on steroids.
"Pretty impressive, huh? Wait until you see the inside." Jiro grinned at me, and we continued along the path, which curved around the side of the house to the main entrance facing the ridge. A massive fir door, carved and ornamented with elaborate iron hinges and framed in etched glass, opened onto a dark slate-floored foyer. The view out the front of the house, through those massive windows was distantly appreciated from here; a soaring wood-spindled staircase framed the two-storey living room. I hoped that my responsibilities didn't include chasing spiders off of the vaulted ceiling…
"Your suite is this way; you don't have to worry about this space at all, as long as the heat stays on at minimum levels." We dropped my luggage, and I followed my guide to the left, down a curving hallway that screamed 'servants quarters' and into a bright, cozy room that I instantly knew I would like. The walls were hung with a variety of artwork, there were cheerful rugs scattered on the wooden floors, a western-style kitchen table and chairs, a huge stone fireplace with a pile of kindling and logs beside it, built-in bookcases full of reading material and comfy furniture. In short, it was the most un-Japanese space I'd been in since I left British Columbia; I wondered if the furniture had come with the house.
Jiro gave me the keys, left a bag of fresh groceries on the counter, and then we went outside to the generator building, where he gave me a crash course in how to keep the beast happy. Full of fuel and a touch of grease were the main points; without it, my laptop wouldn't work, the toilets wouldn't flush and there wouldn't be any hot water…or lights. The thought of being caught in that huge house without any working light switches had me paying very close attention to his lesson, and by the time he had me do several practise run-throughs with restarting and refilling, I felt fairly confident that even I couldn't muck it up. He showed me the huge wood crib, filled with neatly-split kindling and the stacks upon stacks of seasoned logs all cut to size for the fireplaces. We gathered up several armloads, and returned to the main house, where the co-pilot had already lit a fire for me, then explained how to use the radio phone.
By the time the plane lifted off, it was growing dark, and I was glad they had told me not to bother with seeing them off down at the dock. The woods surrounding the house seemed to loom closer as the light in the sky faded; I turned my back on all those windows, locked the front door, scuttled down the hall to my quarters, and locked that door, too. All my bags were now waiting to be unpacked; the doorway to my bedroom was to the left of the fireplace, and when I opened it, was surprised to see a North American-style mattress and boxspring. It was just like being back at my host family's house, except a whole lot bigger, and the fireplace was obviously twinned to the one in the main room. That's when I was sure that the furniture had been supplied along with the house, because it was just all too of a piece to be coincidence.
This family must really be loaded. Now I knew why they were so generous with the wages they were paying me to look after this place. 'Isolation pay', my auntie's butt.
I unloaded my clothes into the western-style closet and faux-rustic chest of drawers, inspected the bathroom, which was also non-Japanese, and then looked for a spot where I could set up my laptop. I wasn't really on a full sabbatical from work; they were going to email me editing jobs and keep paying me a reduced salary. I figured that was fair, and I actually could mess around with a few story ideas when I was bored, although there were an awful lot of attractive-looking books on those shelves… I discovered the 'office' back in the main room, tucked into a corner under the windows. I plugged everything in, and was pleased when my email icon popped up on cue. While waiting for my inbox to open, I investigated the kitchen area until I located a kettle and tea pot, some tea and a mug…and then wondered about dinner.
Shouldn't have worried. The place was fully stocked with enough food in canned, dried, and frozen forms to feed a few sumo wrestlers for weeks. I unpacked the bag of fresh vegetables and meat into the refrigerator, and then found a note pinned to the door informing me that more would come every couple of weeks on the plane; if I had anything special to request, I was to radio it or email it in a week ahead of time. Deciding on something simple, I started water boiling for ramen and sliced a carrot and a spring onion, then found a chicken breast, so added that to the water to simmer along with a slice of fresh ginger and some garlic. I checked my emails, made my soup and contentedly slurped it along with the tea while I sent replies.
It was around midnight when I finally wound down enough to go to sleep. I banked the fire carefully, closing the wire mesh to keep the sparks under control, checked the window and door locks, then shut myself in the bedroom. I briefly debated whether or not to light the fire, then decided to just go to bed. After I crawled between the sheets and turned out the lights, I laid awake for quite a while, listening to the strange noises associated with a new place, but I finally fell asleep.
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The next morning, I woke up a little disoriented. The pale early-winter sun was sending watery beams slanting across the gravel and the lawns; there was birdsong in the trees, which didn't look quite so threatening in the light of dawn. I had a quick shower, then ate a leisurely breakfast before dressing to go explore the house, and then the grounds.
I poked a couple of logs onto the fire and blew on them to keep it going through the day, then unlocked the door and stepped out into the main house. I felt like a little kid, as I snooped through the enormous living room, a library with towering windows and more books than my old high school, a richly upholstered den, and a dainty parlour, plus a large professional kitchen and a huge formal dining room, again with western-style chairs and a table to seat at least a dozen. Up those beautiful swooping stairs were guestrooms to accommodate the dozen plus guests, as well as a master suite that took up most of the third floor, with dormer windows opening to the front of the house as well as the back. It had a spectacular view of the ridge out one window, and an even more incredible view of the sea out the opposite. For the briefest moment, I was tempted to move in up here and be queen of the house, but it was a long, dark way up those stairs at night.
This house was so remote, I wondered if anybody had ever slept in those guest rooms, and then remembered probably not, as the house was only recently constructed. The island was uninhabited up until that point, and now the sole human tenant was me. I shivered a bit, shut the door carefully, and made my way back down to the foyer, where I pulled on my boots and bravely set off to check out the rest of my responsibilities.
First, I looked in on the generator; it was chugging along happily, full of fuel, so I left it to get on with things. I followed a broad flagstone path off to the left, as it wound into the forest. These were the paths that I was expected to keep free of snow over the winter; I'd seen the shovel and broom in the generator shed. There were rustic benches set at intervals along the way, and also bird feeders of different shapes and sizes in the trees, so I guessed that keeping them filled was also part of the deal. The path meandered quite a distance before terminating in a rock-built viewing platform that had waves crashing against its base and the air full of ozone and salt spray. I sat on one of the benches and looked out at the wide Pacific; it was quite the view; nothing but restless, ever-shifting ocean as far as the eye could see.
It made me shiver, and I started back along the path, looking at it critically from a work point of view. I realized I should have asked how much snow this place received, then decided to look it up on the 'net. I counted the bird feeders on the way back…two dozen!...and once home, looked in the shed until I found the bins, full of different types of seeds and nuts. I had my choice of a small kid's wagon or a sleigh, weather permitting of course, to pull the seed containers with me. It probably took me an hour or so to walk back along the path and fill all the feeders, which were of different sizes and types, and were all neatly labelled as to the kind of seeds that went in them. There was also a bin of apples in the shed marked 'for the deer and rabbits'. Looks like the wildlife is friendly…
It was when I came back in the house to have a cup of tea that I noticed the bank of binoculars in the foyer. Obviously, I was in the home of some very keen bird watchers. I made lunch, then fired up my computer to do some work.
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A couple of weeks passed quickly enough. I walked the path every morning, filling the bird feeders and sweeping leaves, prodding the generator and bringing in wood for my fireplace, doing a 'walkabout' through the house, then settled in to work. The day after the first grocery-run by the fly-boys, I felt like staying outside longer, because it was so nice and crisp; I decided to go for a hike on one of the deer trails that meandered into the bush.
I'm not completely stupid in the bush, surprisingly enough for a Tokyo-born and -bred girl. During my stay in Canada, my host family took me 'camping'; the best thing to come out of that trip, besides 's'mores', was the daughter showed me how to mark my trail. I think they were afraid that I would wander off and be eaten by wolves or something. We used a roll of bright pink 'flagging tape' to festoon the trees…and amazingly enough, we didn't get lost. Got in trouble from a park ranger for littering, however. I had actually brought a ball of florescent-red yarn with me for just this circumstance. I dug it out of the drawer I'd stashed it in, found a pair of scissors, and headed out to explore.
I was about half an hour into my hike when I found The Glade.
I nearly walked right past it, but a shaft of sunlight to the right caught my attention in the thickly massed under story that I was currently pushing my way through. I tied two pieces of yarn to the nearest bush, and turned right. The bushes gave way to a small open space in the forest, soft green moss covering the ground. Across from where I stood, a massive cedar tree stood sentinel, its trunk at least twenty feet in diameter, its boughs curving down to the ground like skirts. I carefully sank to the ground, seating myself cross-legged and trying to make as little noise as possible.
It was very hushed, as if the glade had a resident spirit, and that spirit was holding its breath at my intrusion. The fine hairs on the back of my neck stood up; there was some ancient magic here, and I was afraid that if I spoke, it would shatter. I sat quietly and watched, warmed by the sunshine that illuminated the glade, admiring the enormous tree, wondering at its great age. I noticed movement on the verges; little woodland creatures crept out of the shadows and watched me with their bright eyes. A pair of rabbits, only a tiny bit of brown remaining in their winter white fur, hopped and nibbled, twitching their velvety ears. Birdsong began again, and small twittering groups discussed the situation, while hopping from branch to branch, cocking their feathered heads at me.
I don't know how long I stayed there, but I felt so peaceful and contented, that I barely noticed the passage of time. Finally, I saw the shadows beginning to creep across the mossy ground, and reluctantly rose to leave. On a sudden impulse, I bowed formally to the sentinel tree and backed out the way I came. I had a bit of trouble seeing the bright yarn in the rapidly-darkening forest, but I wasn't afraid; for some reason, the trees were no longer looming harbingers of danger. However, I was very glad to open the door to the house, and turn on the lights in my cozy suite. It wasn't that late in the day, but I could tell that the days were definitely becoming shorter.
One afternoon a week after I first found The Glade, it began to snow. Soft, fluffy, fat flakes began swirling down out of the steel-grey winter sky. I drank a cup of tea and watched out the window while working on the computer. Guess I'll be getting the shovel out tomorrow morning…
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I had left the curtains open, since it seemed awfully silly to close them when there wasn't anyone to peek in, and the light coming from outside woke me up. Dazed, I blinked blearily at the clock, which read 3:27 AM; it was like broad daylight outside. I stumbled out of bed to look outside.
A white blanket covered everything, reducing the world to an ink painting in shades of black, grey and white. The skies had cleared and a full moon brilliantly illuminated the snow, etching the shadows dark and deep, silvering the ocean's surface. It was so beautiful I was inspired to see more. I grabbed a sweater and a flashlight, and scampered out of my bedroom, past the ember-lit fireplace and out the door into the corridor. Pausing to snag a pair of binoculars from the rack in the foyer, I turned on the flashlight and ran upstairs. I ignored all the guest rooms in favour of the master suite, and whirled in to feast my eyes on the view from up here. The moon's silvered path made the rest of the sea fade to black, joining seamlessly with the sky at the horizon. The shadows cast by the trees were in sharp, etched contrast to the whiteness of the snow. Everything looked so clean, so perfect.
I danced across the room to see how the view of the ridge compared to the ocean…and caught my breath. The sheer grey granite face was silver in the moonlight, the planes and angles of the rock delineated by sharp-edged shadows so crisp they looked like they had been drawn with rulers and ink. Only the very top of the ridge was cloaked in snow, and I wondered what the view would be like from up there. I knelt on the window-seat, and rested my arms on the sill, just drinking it all in. This place was so beautiful, that if I hadn't been so cynical, I would say it was calling to my heart. I shook myself. Better not to fall in love with a place that wasn't mine, and in three months, I'd never see again. While I was mentally chewing myself out, a flicker of movement caught my eye.
I squinted, and looked. Was my mind playing tricks?
No…there was definitely something moving, up there on the crest of the ridge.
I dashed across the room, grabbed the binoculars, ran back, and began tracking up the shoulder of the mountain, focussing the lenses, until I could see what it was. I froze; I think I said something clever like 'What the hell?'
It was a dog.
I actually put the binoculars down carefully, rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands, picked them up, and looked again.
Definitely a dog. Pure white, finely-muzzled, with long fur flowing around its legs as it seemed to float over the blinding-white snow. I followed its progress, until it paused on the very peak of the mountain, etched against the velvet blackness, then disappeared down the backside of the ridge. I continued to watch, hoping that it would come back into view, but it did not. By that time, my brain was turning over, wondering how the dog came to be there, who it could possibly belong to, what its name was.
"The Mountain Prince", I said, to the walls of the silent house, and it, being insensate, agreed with me. I sat curled up in the window-seat for a very long time after that, wondering and conjecturing, until I noticed that the sky was lightening, and I was really cold. Shutting the door behind me, I scurried downstairs, back to my own rooms, and poked the fire into life. I made a cup of tea and sat on the hearthrug until I was well toasted, and planned out what I was going to do to solve the mystery of the white dog.
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The next day, after thoroughly rooting around in all nooks and crannies of the main house and taking the storage shed apart, I had to admit that the dog did not belong to the family that owned the place. Not a single sign of dog food, dog dishes, dog toys, never mind a leash or a collar or a bed. I loaded the sleigh with bird seed and the snow shovel, and started out, puzzling some more.
Man, that was an awful lot of work! It took four hours for me to shovel and curse my way to the end of the path and back, stopping to fill the bird feeders along the way. I was sopping wet with sweat and very cranky from lack of sleep by the time I finished…and I realized I'd also have to do the path from the house all the way to the dock as well. Grumbling some very colourful epithets that would have curled my grandmother's poker-straight hair, I parked the sleigh and started in on that task.
I was about halfway done when I decided that lunch was a better plan, so left the shovel jammed into the snow to mark the farthest point of my endeavours and trudged back into the house. I made miso soup and ate a couple of rice balls left over from the day before, and decided that I would ask Jiro for a bag of dog food to be sent on the next plane. Maybe the Mountain Prince had been abandoned by one of the members of the construction crew…that twisted my tabi, so to speak. How could anyone just dump an animal in the wild?
Fortified by lunch and dry clothes, I returned to the task at hand, and managed to finish before dark. I even scraped the dock, enjoying the sounds made by the snow when it plopped into the dark water. Rolling my shoulders, I knew I was going to be in for it, pain-wise, tomorrow, so decided that I would spend the day inside catching up on my work. After dinner, I fired up the radio phone to call in my grocery requests, including the dog food. When I reached that item, there was a long pause. Finally, Jiro spoke.
"You've seen the Ghost Dog, then?"
I grinned widely at the receiver, suddenly ridiculously excited that the dog wasn't a figment of my imagination. "Ghost Dog? What can you tell me about it?"
Jiro's voice crackled with static. "He showed up during the construction of the house…he's wild, Michikoto-san. Don't try to tame him. In fact, I'll bring you some pepper spray…"
That startled me. "P-pepper spray? You mean he's…"
"Vicious, ma'am. He attacked a couple of members of the surveyor's crew. One of them nearly died. The owners of the house sent a tracking team after the dog, but it seemed to vanish into thin air…like a ghost. Once construction started, he was spotted a few times, but he never came close enough to be caught. You be careful, Michikoto-san."
"Please call me Rin; I'll be careful. No-one told me I'd be sharing the island with a rabid dog…"
"There might also be wolves, Mi-I mean, Rin. They live a couple of islands over, but they have been known to swim between them when they get hungry enough."
"Great! Can you bring me a suit of armour while you're at it?"
He chuckled, the sound static-twisted. "I'll get right on that…see you on Wednesday."
Ghost Dog, eh? Well, he was still the Mountain Prince to me. Since it was unlikely we'd be personally introduced, I could call him what I wanted, right?
I went to bed, with the curtains wide open so that I could admire the snow-draped trees.
…Fuzzy white puppies floating over the snow…why are they growling? Have to run, have to get away…snow too deep…
I woke up gasping, the sound of vicious snarling ringing in my ears. I untangled myself from the sheets, and went over to look out the window, breathing deep, trying to shake the nightmare from my head. I hoped that the Mountain Prince would stay up on his mountain, where I could admire him from afar. I was snapped out of my thoughts by fluttering motion.
Damn…it was snowing again!
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The whole next week, it seemed like I spent more time shovelling than sleeping. The island was blanketed with a deep, soft layer of ice crystals; my two sets of outdoor clothes were in and out of the dryer in a constant cycle. My citified muscles complained constantly, but there was nothing for it, except to keep going. Finally, there was a break in the weather on the Wednesday, and I was practically dancing on the dock when the plane taxied up. Jiro and his co-pilot hopped out, grinning, and began unloading the groceries and fuel tanks. He also handed me a package of pepper spray canisters, with an admonition to read the instructions carefully and do a couple of test fires outside while standing upwind.
They only stayed long enough to carry the bags up to the house for me, because the weather was closing in again. I waved them off, and trailed back up to the house. Next time, I thought, I'd ask them to stay for dinner…it was nice having someone to talk to. I detoured into the shed to check on the generator and refill it, then was about to enter the house, when the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. Without stopping to look around, I darted through the door, locked it and leaned against it, trying to calm down. My heart was pounding…in fear?
Be serious, Rin. Fear of what? The boogeyman? No…the Ghost Dog, of course.
I shook my head at myself, and went to make dinner. I sat up for a while, working on the computer, but that eerie feeling kept running up and down my spine, making me shiver.
…A furious white dog with savage reddened eyes, baring its elongated fangs in my face, snarling ferociously…
I sat upright, gasping and soaked in sweat, then rubbed my temples in an attempt to make that image go away. I finally gave up, and went out to make a cup of tea, hoping that warmth and light would drive it from my mind. I ended up falling asleep on the couch, as my bed looked something less than inviting.
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It didn't snow overnight, but the day was dark and the sky was leaden. I had a long shower, did laundry, cleaned the kitchen, and generally tried to avoid going outside. I did skitter out once, to check the generator, but shot back inside in record time. The birds could go hungry for once.
The second day, I knew I had to go back outside, lurking imaginary presences or not. Resolutely, I shoved a can of pepper spray in my pocket, marched out to the shed and loaded the sleigh up with bird seed. Checking the instructions on the can, I let off a couple of experimental blasts of spray in the air, and then had to run for it when an errant breeze blew it back at me. My eyes watering a little bit, I put the safety back on, and headed off along the path, hauling the sleigh behind me.
I noticed that the overcast was lightening a little bit, and a few shafts of sunlight were edging their way through. The birds were anxiously awaiting me; I felt a little bit guilty when they practically mobbed the feeders as I was filling them. A couple of braver ones actually sat in the scoop as it made the trip from bin to feed tray, pecking away for all they were worth. I swept the path free of drifting snow all the way out to the sea-viewing platform and took a moment to just breathe before heading back.
I had put the sleigh away, and scattered a few apples on the lawn for the deer, when that sensation struck me again, and I had to physically stop myself from bolting for the door. Slowly, I straightened up and looked around, my heart thundering in my chest all the while. After a few minutes, I stopped feeling like I was going to faint, and the hair-prickling sensation also disappeared.
I decided right then that I was going to have to face up to this, or I'd be a gibbering wreck by the end of the week, and then what would I do? I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and decided to face my fear, and prove to myself that I could do this. Stepping back into the shed for a moment, I took a handful of seed and shoved it into my other pocket, and then headed towards the deer trail where my bright-red strand of yarn stood out against the white and grey.
It was hard going in the powdery snow; at least a foot had accumulated. I persevered, wondering how magical The Glade would look with that sentinel tree coated in white. Turning right at the double strand of red, I slowed down until I could slip into the open space as quietly as possible.
It was beautiful. The enormous cedar resembled a lady wearing an elegant white kimono, patterned with swooping, curving lines. I bowed, very deeply, and sat down in the snow, breathing in the calmness and tranquility. I remember thinking that I really was being silly, that the fear was all in my head. The Mountain Prince was on the other side of the island, or up on the ridge, and wasn't interested in a human.
Some little birds twittered in the bushes around me; slowly, I pulled some seed out and scattered it in the snow around me. There was a brief moment of chattered conversation, and then I was surrounded by little feathered puffs, pecking away at the seed. After a short time, several bold ones hopped closer, watching me with bright beady eyes. Slowly, I put my hand into my pocket, cupped some seed, then withdrew it and held it out. First one, then another bird clung to my fingertips with their tiny prickling claws and dipped their heads.
There was an abrupt, squawking flurry, and the birds were gone. Startled, I looked up…and there was the Mountain Prince.
The huge dog stood on the other side of The Glade, completely immobile, only his long white fur moving slightly, his yellow eyes glowing. I gulped, and held very still, then began sneaking my hand towards the pocket that held the pepper spray canister. For a very long moment, we stared at each other. In that heartbeat of time, I took a really good look at him. He was almost the size of a pony, with a massive, yet somehow elegant head situated at the top of a neck sporting an impressive silky-looking ruff. Then I noticed his tail was lashing angrily, his hackles were up and his ears were laid back. I forced my shaking fingers to flick the safety off the pepper spray…and then he was on me.
I glimpsed red eyes and fangs, and then the force of his shoulder colliding with my chest forced all the air out of my lungs in a whoosh, and bowled me head over heels backwards into the snow. Blinded by and choking on ice crystals, I couldn't get my breath to scream, as those nightmarish snarls from my disturbed sleep rang in my ears. Through all the layers of vest and jacket, I felt jaws close around my throat, and a massive paw landed on my shoulder, shoving me deeper into the snow with his body weight. I began bucking and thrashing desperately, managed to grab a handful of fur and yank. The snarling went up in volume, and the jaws clamped down. He was going to rip out my throat!
The pepper spray was still trapped in my pocket by his other paw pinning my arm. I found my voice and screamed when I felt a fang poke my neck, and yanked on his fur again, trying to shove that deadly mouth away from me, but I might as well have been trying to move solid rock. He shifted his jaws slightly, and with a riiip, the front of my jacket was torn away, along with a large chunk of vest and turtleneck sweater, baring my throat and my breasts. Only my bra was barely intact.
This was how I was going to die, alone on a remote island, torn apart by a vicious dog. My mother would be disgusted that I couldn't even expire without embarrassing the family.
Twisting helplessly, sinking deeper and deeper into the snow, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and whimpered, too terrified to even think any more, my hand fisting convulsively in his fur. Would it be quick? Now that I was down, would he disembowel me and begin to feed while I was still alive? Sobbing, tears running freely, trembling, I waited, expecting to experience sharp teeth tearing into my skin any second.
Very hot breath gusted over my bare skin, but the jaws did not descend. Instead, I felt a damp nose touch my collarbone lightly and briefly, and both heard and felt the dog take several deep, wet sniffs of my skin. The snarling reduced to feral growls, and then suddenly, the growling stopped altogether, and a tongue delicately touched my cheek, lifting away my tears. Startled beyond coherent response, I let go of his fur, opened my eyes, and found myself nose-to-muzzle with the beast, his strangely cat-slit yellow eyes regarding me intently… with wonder and a bit of puzzlement.
We stared at each other for a very, very long moment…and then he was gone. I just lay there, embedded in the snow and gasping while I tried to comprehend what had happened. Slowly, I sat up, and looked around. The dog had disappeared, without even a trace of paw prints to show in which direction he had retreated. Trying to grip together the gaping edges of my jacket, I struggled to my feet. Looking up at the sentinel cedar, unchanging, solid and reassuring, I backed away and stumbled blindly out of The Glade.
Somehow, I made it back to the house and staggered inside. I locked the door, and then locked myself in my rooms. I shed the layers of ruined clothing, and ran a bath. I needed to warm up, and clean off the unnerving sensation of being 'assaulted'…by a dog. I couldn't begin to comprehend why he didn't just tear my throat out and finish the job, or even why his eyes had looked almost…human…in their bafflement. The other big question I couldn't face at that point was, how could I ever go back outside and feel safe, knowing that the dog had found me once and could easily do so again. Shivering even in the hot bath, I tried to calm down, but rational thought wasn't having any of it. I should have known better than to expect a calm slumber.
…Red eyes…steely fangs…yellow eyes…I don't want to die…I'm not ready yet...
I was, quite frankly, a mess the next morning…and it was snowing again. Damn. I leaned my forehead against the cold glass of the kitchen window, watching the flakes spiral past, my breath making frosted patterns. Sighing, I turned back towards the hearth and plopped in front of the fire, thinking morose thoughts, but then dragged myself over to the computer, and began a day of work, mainly to take my mind off of things.
Fat chance. My brain refused to let go of the images or sensations of looking death in the face, so it was a bit of a wash. As the light faded from the sky, I rolled myself up in bed without eating dinner, and tried to sleep. The snow continued to fall, lightly and softly, and the patterns must have mesmerized me enough as I stared sightlessly out the window, because the next thing I knew, it was sometime the following morning. I was in the process of stretching, when cold dread gripped my guts and gave them a shake. I had to go out there…into his territory. No, dammit. The mountain was his; this part was mine.
Throwing a temper tantrum with only myself as witness and participant seemed like a waste of time, so I had a shower instead, and a cup of tea. Setting the rice cooker to do its thing in time for lunch, I put my torn outdoor gear into a garbage bag and dressed in my only other remaining set. Before opening the front door, I took some deep, steadying breaths and boldly stepped outside. I carefully looked around, and felt marginally better that there was no sign of the Mountain Prince. I took the garbage bag out to the generator shed, checked the machinery, topped up the tank, and began readying myself for the shovelling and bird feeding task ahead.
The birds were happy to see me again, and the snow was light, but enough had fallen to take a fair bit of time to clean the path. Once or twice I had the feeling that I was being watched, but the hair-prickling sensation was absent, so I told myself that it was the deer, waiting for me to set out some apples. At the ocean-platform end of the path, I stopped to admire the expansive vista…and saw something moving among the rocks a fair distance down the exposed beach.
The Mountain Prince was daintily picking his way across the rocky foreshore.
For a brief moment, I was mesmerized by the way his fur flowed in the sea breeze; and then I took off down the pathway like the imps of hell were at my heels. Grabbing the sleigh and shovel, I ran flat out until I skidded into the shed, dumped the gear, and flew into the house, slamming the door. He hadn't gone back up the mountain; he was hanging around in my territory. I went in, heart thundering, to eat my rice, and to try and ignore the fact that I was actually wondering, again, why the dog hadn't simply killed me.
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The next day, I kept seeing flashes of moving white out of the corner of my eye. By the fourth or fifth incident, I was thoroughly spooked, but grimly determined that I wouldn't run again. I had pepper spray in my pocket, and was willing to use it. Look out, dog…I'm armed and dangerous…
Two following days were the same; flashes and flickers of white, always on my periphery, until finally, I scooped up a handful of snow and hurled it into the bush in an explosion of nerves and sheer exasperation. "Dammit, dog…either get your furry ass out here and face me, or go away!" As soon as the first part left my big mouth, I knew I was in trouble. The hair rose on my neck and arms in the resulting hush, and I slowly turned around, my mouth completely dry, my heart beginning to hammer wildly.
The Mountain Prince was standing about twenty feet away, in the centre of the pathway, blocking my escape route to the house. Good planning, there, Rin… We stared each other down…until the dog gracefully seated himself on the path, curled his long tail around his haunches and gave every sign of making himself comfortable. I opened my mouth…and then shut it quickly. Carefully noting his non-aggressive stance, which was relaxed, ears forward, tail moving gently, I decided on a different approach; there wasn't anyone around to see me make a fool out of myself, or save my sorry ass…
…So I bowed politely to him, and said, "Greetings, Mountain Prince. Would you please excuse me? I must continue with my task…" I swear the dog blinked and nodded slightly. Keeping an eye on him as I closed the distance between us, pulling the sleigh and filling the feeders, I couldn't help but remark on the intelligence in those yellow eyes. I wondered if the red I'd seen that day in The Glade was a figment of my imagination…then decided it wasn't, because the pressure of his jaws on my throat was absolutely real.
He was definitely assessing me; his wet nose twitched as he sniffed the air between us. Finally, when I came within five feet of him, heart in my throat, I smiled warily. "Will you let me pass, Mountain Prince?" He hesitated a moment, then stood up on all fours, a movement which made me jump a bit, but it gave me a much better idea of his overall size. His head was roughly just below my chest level; his shoulders reached to my hips. In other words, I wouldn't stand a chance against him, if I'd ever thought I might. Those feline-yellow eyes regarded me thoughtfully; I bobbed my head quickly. "Thank you…my name is Rin, by the way."
I was very surprised when he turned around on the path, and began to walk ahead of me. He turned his head slightly, almost as if to make sure I was following, and seeing me stock still with shock, made a small jerking movement as if to say, "Well, come on, then!" and slowed his pace. I collected my scattered thoughts, mentally slapped myself and followed at a safe distance, my fingers closing around the pepper spray. Every time I had to stop to fill the feeders, the Mountain Prince would stop, too, and wait patiently, moving on when I was done at each station. Just as we reached the start of the path, I blinked…and he was gone. Vanished. Poof! How'd he do that? Then I remembered how he had covered the width of The Glade in less than a heartbeat, and shivered.
I put everything away, but instead of hurrying into the house, I paused on the doorstep and looked intently into the trees. I knew he was out there…but for some reason that fact didn't scare me quite so much. He could have killed me any one of these days, but hadn't. Instead, he seemed…curious about me. Maybe he was just trying to decide if 'human female, raw' would be an appropriate addition to his diet; I was safe until he figured out the answer, so I was prepared to go along with it…for now. "Good night, Mountain Prince…I'll see you tomorrow," I called to the silent forest and then went in and locked the door.
…I was walking…through swirling diaphanous clouds…at the heels of a white dog-like creature, whose outline was shimmering and indistinct…don't leave me behind!
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The next morning, when I came out of the house, the first thing I saw was the Mountain Prince. He was sitting right on the entrance to the pathway, as still as a statue. I stopped dead, then determinedly called out, "Good morning!" before heading over to the shed. He cocked his head slightly, and watched intently until I came out with the broom and the sleigh. I will admit to holding the broom in a death-grip, unsure of his intentions… the dog waited until I was fairly close, then unfurled himself and walked on ahead. It was a repeat of the previous day. At the end, I left the sleigh behind and continued sweeping the flag-stones all the way out to the viewing platform. The Mountain Prince stayed ahead of me; I wondered what he would do when we reached the platform. I wondered what I would do.
I circled around him to look out over the seascape; I positioned myself so I could see him out of my peripheral vision. The only problem with that brilliant idea was the bitingly cold wind made my eyes water; by the time I'd wiped them clear, the Mountain Prince was an arm's length away and standing on his hind legs, resting his front paws on the wall, effectively shielding me from the wind. Did he do that deliberately? I wondered, and then registered how he towered over me. I took a big step back, and began sweeping the pavement clean of snow. "Brrr! It's too cold to linger here, don't you think?" The dog came down from the wall, and headed back into the path, me trailing along behind, wondering about this strange animal, so frighteningly savage one day and almost protective another. I also wondered why it somehow felt right, to be trailing along behind, watching his silky tail ripple with his movement.
Just a residual effect of the dream I had, I guess.
When I put the sleigh away, he was still waiting at the entrance of the grounds. "I'm going in for lunch…see you tomorrow?" He huffed, and I paused. "Er…is there something you want?" The dog jerked his head, exactly as if he was commanding me to follow, and gave a soft growl when I hesitated. "Okay…but I'll warn you, I get cranky without food, and I'm running on empty…" Gripping the pepper spray in my pocket firmly, I followed the dog, and wasn't too surprised when he veered off into the bush on a deer trail. He waited for me as I floundered in the snow, and I wondered how he could make it look so effortless. Must have something to do with weight distribution? I muttered to myself.
As soon as we stepped into the clearing, I knew exactly where we were…The Glade. The Mountain Prince walked straight across to the huge tree, and sat down in the snow in front of it. I stayed where I was, the imprint of where he attacked me clearly visible, although the lines had been softened by windblown snow. He looked over his shoulder at me, waiting. I got the idea he wanted me to join him; I bit my lip, and shuffled my feet, feeling really uncertain…then The Glade worked its magic, and I calmed down. Slowly, I walked up beside him, keeping a bit of distance, which was a joke, really, considering how fast he could move…and looked up at the tree. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a nose touched the back of my gloved hand. Yellow eyes flickered at my reaction, and the dog whined softly. Halfway to backing away, I realized that he wasn't threatening in any way, merely waiting…for what?
Making a split-second decision, very cautiously, I took my glove off and extended my hand towards him. Just as slowly, he reached over that huge muzzle, pressed his wet black nose into my palm and inhaled deeply, his eyes closed. Just before he moved away, the very tip of his warm pink tongue came out and touched my skin…and then he turned his attention to the tree. Wondering what he was looking at, I also glanced up, but only noticed that the sky was darkening. I bowed to the tree, said "Excuse me, Mountain Prince…but I must go." The dog did not move, just made a soft noise in his throat and continued to gaze up at the tree.
I backed up until I reached the spot where my flagging started, and then hurried into the forest, my brain puzzling so hard it hurt. What was going on with The Glade and that tree? Was the dog…apologizing for attacking me? That thought brought me up short for a moment, then I shook my head and kept going. The Mountain Prince did not follow.
…Following the white creature through the mists… it rose upright onto its hind legs…and then faded from view…I struggled to keep up…wait for me!
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When the float plane arrived, I hadn't seen the Mountain Prince for a couple of days, not since we parted at The Glade. Jiro grinned widely at me. "Need any more pepper spray, Rin?"
"No…the wildlife has turned out to be pretty tame."
"Have you seen the Ghost Dog again?"
"Um…hey, are those sweet dumplings?"
"The owners thought you needed a little treat…"
Once the plane took off, me waving cheerfully, the Mountain Prince reappeared, suddenly, silently on the path from the dock. I stopped short, my fingers closing reflexively on the canister in my pocket, but his stance was very non-threatening; in fact, his tail was swishing gently. He was far too regal for me to say he was 'wagging', but that is exactly what the appendage was doing, waving lightly back and forth. "Hello, Mountain Prince. I missed you these last days…are you well?" He came steadily forward; I stood my ground, but took my fingers away from the can and forced my hands to hang loosely at my sides. He'd have me down before I could move, anyways, so what was the point? 'Trust' might be a relative term, but it had to start somewhere.
He stopped right in front of me, not even a foot away; those strange eyes watching mine intently all the while. His muzzle stretched toward my gloved hand, until I felt his nose make the briefest contact before he turned and lead the way up the path to the house. I forced my suddenly shaking legs to work, and fell into step behind him as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Too bad I couldn't ask him if he'd dreamed of a woman following him around…
I looked up at the ridge, shining brightly in the rays of sunlight, and said out loud, "I wonder what the view is like from up there?" The Mountain Prince stopped when he heard me, glanced over his shoulder and then seemed to shake his head. I stuck my tongue out at him. "Hey, I could hike up there, no problem!" He gave me a look, and sighed lightly before continuing on. I fisted my hands on my hips and glared after him. "If the weather's good tomorrow, I'm having lunch up there; just wait and see!" I was sure I heard another sigh.
Now I was arguing with a dog, and imputing human emotions to him. Ah, yes, bush fever was raising its hoary head…
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The next morning, I checked the weather forecast on the computer; it was favourable, so brought out the flagging yarn, the scissors, matches, a flashlight and made a large lunch including lots of water. Don't eat yellow snow… Humming cheerfully, I put everything into a small day-pack except for the yarn and the scissors. Hesitating a moment, but then with a feeling of finality, I took the canister of pepper spray out of my coat pocket and left it on the counter. I didn't need it for the deer and bunnies, and was fairly sure that I didn't need it for the Mountain Prince any more, either. Today was the test.
As soon as I stepped outside, he materialized out of the bush. I was almost jaunty when I walked up to him and inclined my head. "Good morning! I'm going on a hike up the ridge today; the birds will have to wait." Whistling, I set off up a deer trail that I estimated led in the right direction, stopping to flag every fifteen steps or so. I figured I was doing fairly well; that is, until the Mountain Prince appeared on the other side of a clearing about forty-five minutes in. I waved at him, and continued on my merry way; he woofed.
Surprised, I turned to look at him; he regarded me steadily for a few moments and then jerked his head over his shoulder, as if to say, "This way, you moronic human."
"Am I going in the wrong direction?" I called; no doubt about it, he moved his head again. I sighed, and retraced my steps to untie the last couple of pieces of flagging, then jogged over to him. He began walking ahead of me, pausing whenever I needed to mark a tree, and sure enough, the ground began to incline, gently at first, and then became quite steep. I was puffing nicely fairly soon, and stopped for some water. The Mountain Prince watched me drink; he licked his lips. I tipped a bit more water into the cup and held it out to him. He looked from the cup to me and back again; then he padded close and daintily dipped his large tongue into the water several times, lapping silently and not splashing a drop. I smiled brightly at him; he held my eye for a moment longer, then we continued onward and upward.
The going became rather slippery once we were above the trees, on the shoulder of the ridge. I was too busy being careful where I put my feet to look at anything. I had strewn flagging tape like crazy when we left the tree line and picked out a couple of landmarks to orient myself when we came back down. The Mountain Prince waited patiently while I did this, no doubt amused at the muttered commentary I was making.
We were nearing the top when my foot slipped, and things nearly spiralled into disaster. I felt the snow and a patch of ice hidden below it give way as I put my weight on it, and I began to slide… towards the edge of the cliff. Letting out a shrill scream, I flung myself flat and scrabbling, tried to dig in with my toes and hands. That slowed me just the tiniest bit…and gave the dog his chance. Once again, his teeth were in my collar, but this time he gave a mighty yank and I hung from his jaws like a pup, having suddenly moved about ten feet back from my previous position.
He let go of my jacket, but didn't move away while I shivered at the 'close one'. I felt him nuzzle the back of my neck briefly; when I carefully got up on my knees, and then to my feet, he stayed close so I could brace myself against him. "Thanks, Mountain Prince…that was a little too close, wouldn't you say?" He growled lightly when I moved away from his side; surprised, I stopped, and he pushed his shoulder into my leg, a move which nearly knocked me over again. Yelping, I grabbed a handful of ruff to steady myself…and then froze. What would he do now? I was touching him…all our contact had been initiated by him up until this point.
The dog began to pull away, but when I loosened my grip, he growled again, that same low tone, and deliberately bumped me again, but more gently this time. He wanted me to hold onto him…obediently I sank my fingers deeper into his thick fur, and he woofed softly, then began moving uphill again. I had to admit, it was much easier going with him doing most of the balance work, and he seemed to know where to step to avoid any icy patches.
Ten minutes later, we were at the top of the ridge, and the view was fantastic. On one side, the fathomless ocean, steel-grey velvet, all the waves smoothed out by the distance, and on the other, the ridge dropped steeply away to showcase an incredible panorama of the nearby islets and the distant mainland cloaked in dark forests, white foam surging around their feet where the sea met the land.
"Wow!" I exclaimed, and clapped my hands. "It's beautiful!" The Mountain Prince was still at my side, his black nose twitching as he snuffled the air currents; he looked decidedly smug. "Which view would be best to eat lunch? Land or sea? Hmm…" The dog made it clear which view suited him; he turned his back decisively on the mainland side, and sat down, staring out to sea. I followed his cue, and shrugged the pack off my back before sitting beside him. He took more water when I offered it, but was not interested in the rice balls or cold noodles. I uncorked a thermos of hot black tea; the aroma of that had him sniffing, but he turned away quickly to gaze outward again. We sat companionably together, side by side, admiring the vista…and then I nearly dropped my cup.
His tail had slipped around my hips, the tip twitching against my leg.
Surprised, all I did was stare at it, tea precariously balanced in my hands. I snuck a look at him; he was peering the other way, like the tail had nothing to do with him and was operating on its own recognizance. I shifted gingerly; the tail snuggled up, the tip sneaking into my lap like a mischievous puppy. I flicked it with my fingertip, mainly to see what it would do. It briefly curled around my wrist, then lashed gently against my palm until I couldn't stop myself from both giggling and stroking it. It held still; on impulse, I pulled off my glove and ran my fingers through the silky fur, wondering at the fine texture.
Somebody was rumbling in a low growly-tone. I swung my head around and nearly bumped noses with the Mountain Prince, his yellow eyes half-lidded and wearing a somewhat doggish smirk. I took the opportunity to study those odd vertically-slit pupils, which I had never seen before in a dog. Well, I'd never met a dog whose tail seemed to have a mind of its own, either, so that just added to his mystery.
We lingered at the peak for about half an hour more, until the rising wind began chilling me through my layers of technical clothing, despite the presence of a very warm animal at my side. I packed up the lunch things, saved the scraps for snacks on the way down, and waited for the Mountain Prince to make the first move. He stepped to my side and leaned against my leg; I took a firm grip on his ruff, right over his shoulder blades, and we began our descent.
You know how it often seems to take forever to get somewhere, but then the trip back seems to be quick? Didn't work that way on this hike. Because of the icy conditions, it took us twice as long to get down to the tree line as it had to go up, and the sky was darkening rapidly as we plunged into the trees. I kept a tight hold of the Mountain Prince; he didn't seem to be having any trouble seeing where he was going, so I trusted him blindly not to lead us into danger. Finally, I guessed we were at least three-quarters of the way home when it became pitch-black, and my flashlight was too puny to make much of a difference.
The dog veered off from the downward path we'd been following and took us into a copse of trees. A branch whacked me in the chest; wheezing, I doubled over, letting go of the dog in the process. By the time I found my bearings, his warm presence was gone, and it suddenly seemed extremely dark and cold and scary. "Mountain Prince? Where are you…?" I heard a low woof from nearly dead ahead, so flashed the light in that direction. I could just see him, eyes glowing red in the light, tucked up under a low-branched tree next to the trunk where it was bare of snow. He woofed again, a plain command, so I obediently crouched and pushed my way under the branches to join him, dislodging clumps of snow on the way.
I sat down against the trunk, shivering, and dug in my pack for the warm tea and a small snack. The temperature was plunging and I knew that hypothermia was a distinct possibility. I could try lighting a fire with the matches, but fuel was almost non-existent. Damn. Now what? I was working on a bit of a panic when the Mountain Prince growled lightly; I looked over at him, and he jerked his head. Sighing, I crawled in his direction and crouched next to him. "Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do…at least it isn't snow…whoops!" He grabbed my sleeve in his teeth, and tugged so that I overbalanced and fell against his side; before I could scoot away, not really understanding what he was up to, that long tail curled over me. His muzzle came to rest against my hip; he growled again, and pressed firmly, leaving me with the idea that I was to sit and stay. So I did.
After a few minutes of holding rigidly still, I slowly relaxed and decided to cautiously make myself comfortable. Shifting around a bit, I snuggled into his shoulder; that tail curled back on itself until I was completely covered in white softness. Once he was sure that I wasn't going to disobey him, the Mountain Prince lifted his head from my hip, nudged my shoulder gently and then took up a position of watchfulness; I had the feeling that he wouldn't be sleeping much tonight. Warmed by his body, cosseted by his tail, I was snug and drowsy in no time. "G'night, Mountain Prince," I yawned, and listened to his steady heartbeat thumping through his ribcage. From somewhere I marshalled the thought that he was much more slender in build than his thick pelt indicated.
My final thought was along the lines of 'definitely don't need that pepper spray any more'.
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Something was tickling me under the chin. I sleepily batted it away and burrowed deeper into the warm fur next to my face. There it was again, flickering against my neck, and when I squirmed, it dusted lightly up along my ear. Giggling, I sat up and trapped the offender…the tip of the Mountain Prince's tail, which continued to wriggle between my hands. I grinned at the dog, who watched me with shadowed eyes. "Someone's feeling pesky this morning…" I sobered up and gave him a serious look. "Thank you for saving me from falling yesterday, and for keeping me warm last night…." He snorted and looked away, as if to say 'it was nothing', and then stood up and shook himself. I reclaimed my pack, then wormed my way out of the protective circle of branches and breathed deep before heading off towards home…or what I thought was the right direction.
"Woof!" Once again, I trailed back towards the Mountain Prince, who seemed to chuckle a bit in his throat before leading the way through the forest to the house. He waited while I checked the generator and loaded the wagon with seed, then escorted me on my rounds. When we returned, and I put everything away, I opened the door of the house before turning to where he stood out in the yard.
"Er…would you like to come in?" He gave a sharp bark before leaping away and disappearing into the trees. "I guess I'll take that as a 'no'…Hey! Mountain Prince! Don't forget to come back…" A tiny bit of fear touched my heart; I hoped he wouldn't disappear into the depths of the island and not return. I went in and spent the morning luxuriating in a hot bath, and the afternoon catching up on work. When the stars came out, I wondered where he was, and then realized it was the night of the full moon. He's probably out hunting or something…
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The Mountain Prince didn't come back the next day, nor the day after that. I found myself peering into the undergrowth, even going so far as to climb up to the master bedroom with the binoculars to scan the ridge for him. Nothing. I worried that he might have fallen off a ledge, or been injured by a kick from a deer…then told myself to relax, he'd obviously survived quite all right without being fussed over.
On the third day, after I'd fed the birds, cooed at the generator to keep it sweet, I decided I would go for a short walkabout to see if I could find any sign of him. Jiro had brought me a new hooded winter coat in bright red, a gift from the owners. I wondered if someone had searched the garbage bags and found my torn jacket from my first encounter with the Mountain Prince. That seemed like a totally weird concept, but stranger things have been known to happen…I took my trusty scissors and red yarn, a bottle of water and an apple, and headed out.
I walked the flagstone path, and was mobbed by the birds as I passed the feeders. Of course, one of them pooped on the shoulder of my new jacket; my auntie used to say that meant good luck was coming. Well, good luck for the dry cleaner, anyways. Grumbling, I used some snow to rub it off, and continued on my way out to the sea-platform. Once there, I scanned the beaches visible on either side but saw no familiar white furry shape. I headed back to the house, circled around it, and walked down towards the dock.
From this vantage point, the other islands in the chain were visible, stretching away towards the distant mainland. From the air, they resembled the knobbly spinal crests of an almost-submerged dark green sea-dragon. I checked the beaches from this angle, and then sighed. The Mountain Prince was definitely not snooping in tidal pools today. Walking back up towards the house, I shaded my eyes to look up at the ridge…and admitted that I missed his company. Really missed him. Talking to him beats talking to myself any day.
As I was about to give up and go in to do some work, I decided to check out another deer trail that went in the opposite direction from the flagstone path, towards the other side of the island. I'd never gone this way before, so flagged every ten steps or so. The snow was smooth and untouched; it made for a bit of rough going when I stepped into soft spots and sank up past my knees. After an hour, I had to admit it was unlikely I'd find the Mountain Prince, but what else was I going to do? It wasn't like he'd come when he was called…feeling a bit chilled, I turned back and began to retrace my steps towards the house.
I was only ten minutes from a cup of tea when that skin-crawling, hair-raising feeling of being stalked made my heart instantly hammer into my throat. My scalp prickling, hearing suddenly over-sensitive in the too-silent forest, I stopped and slowly pivoted to scan the bushes. A very low-pitched rumbling that rose into a chorus of snarls froze my blood. I suddenly picked out pairs of feral eyes…several pairs, glowing from the undergrowth…and the first shaggy brown body prowled forward.
Wolves. And here I was, dressed in a hooded red coat…with no gun-toting woodsman likely to show up in the nick of time. No pepper spray either. Damn.
My legs moved faster than my brain; I took to my heels and ran.
Behind me, the eerie hunting calls of the pack began to ring out, and I knew that they would take me before I could even reach the yard…they could run me down without breaking a sweat, but they seemed to be hanging back. The thrill of the chase. Great. Wolves with a sadistic sense of humour.
Crashing through the bushes, swearing at the snow that seemed determined to help the wolves, I flailed onward, the blood pounding in my ears. I could hear the hoarse breathing of the pack on my heels, punctuated by the occasional bark or snarl. I was gasping raggedly, stumbling, when I fell out into an open space…and they were on me. Screaming, I rolled up into a tight ball, snaking my hands inside my hood to wrap around the back of my neck, instinctively drawing up my legs to protect my belly. The growls and snarling were horrible… I felt teeth punch through the material of my pants to tear into my calf and thigh, tugging, trying to get access to my vitals; another pair of jaws was ripping at my arm. Still another set bit through the hood and into my gloved hands, and I screamed my throat raw. This was the end, I was sure…would there be anything left to identify?
Suddenly, there was a deep-throated roaring over my head, and the teeth that had been tearing at my body were gone. Among a chorus of snarling growls, I felt a presence standing over me; I wondered dimly if this was the pack leader, come at his leisure to finish the kill and claim his portion. Suddenly, the presence was gone as quickly as it had arrived, and I whimpered fearfully…until I noticed that silence had fallen. My attackers had disappeared. Inside my hood, my cheek frozen from being in contact with the snow, I held my breath, trying to hear over the pounding of my heart.
I was just starting to raise my head, to peer out from under the protective darkness of the hood, when something came back and stood over me. I inhaled sharply and let out a small sob, crumpling in defeat. The wolf had returned; this was it. I started to cry quietly…and then a large black nose worked its way under the edge of my hood. I stared at it in shock, then I heard a soft whine, and a pink tongue slipped out and swiped my cheek. Slowly, I lifted my head…and looked straight into the yellow eyes of the Mountain Prince. For a long moment, we just gazed at each other, and then he gently nuzzled my face.
Breathing for what felt like the first time in hours, I unlocked my hands from around the back of my neck and slowly pushed myself up onto my knees, the blood from the bites marring the snow. The Mountain Prince hovered; when I slumped down and nearly keeled over, I ended up falling into his ruff. I closed my eyes and rested against him, listening to his heart beat; he began making a soft growling sound in his throat, and his muzzle came down to press lightly against my shoulder.
He saved me. That thought popped my eyes wide open, and before I thought about it too carefully, I slipped my arms up around his neck and hugged him tightly. The Mountain Prince's body went rigid for a moment; his breathing seemed to stall, and then he relaxed and carefully sat down on his haunches. His long tail swept forward, around my body, the tip tapping lightly against my ribs. I pulled back a bit and looked up at him. "Thank you, Mountain Prince…" He rumbled gently, and braced me when I tried to stand; my bitten leg was weak and hurt like hell. I could feel liquid trickling down inside my pants leg and knew that meant trouble.
I took a double-handed grip on his ruff, and leaning heavily on him, forced myself to stay vertical. It was then I realized where we were. The Glade. I turned my head to look for the sentinel tree; there it stood in its white-robed splendour, just across the clearing. It seemed that this small piece of forest called out to me…perhaps the guardian spirit had summoned the Mountain Prince? Whatever it was, I wasn't going to be rude. Carefully balancing myself, I turned slightly and bowed to the tree; the dog rumbled quietly and nudged me forward. Limping badly, my leg feeling like it was on fire, he led me out of The Glade and back to the house.
By the time we reached the house, I was feeling quite nauseous. The Mountain Prince stood beside me, and when I turned the lock, he pushed the door open with his nose and walked right in, pulling me along with him, as if he did this all the time. I let go of his fur and wavered in place, staring open-mouthed after him as he started down the curving hallway to my suite. He looked over his shoulder at me; I numbly closed the door and my mouth, and hobbled in his footsteps.
I stumbled into my bedroom and then the bathroom, leaving a trail of clothes across the floor until I was wearing only my bra and panties. My stomach flipped over a few times when I saw the holes…holes!...perforating my leg and my arm. Falling to my knees, I pressed my forehead against the cold porcelain of the bathtub and kept swallowing hard so that I didn't vomit from the shock. My hand wasn't too bad; the thick glove had protected it, but it was shaking so severely that I knew applying bandages was going to be tricky.
As I crawled towards the medicine cabinet, a wave of nausea washed over me; I put my head against my knees, panting, feeling very dizzy and disoriented. There was a low rumble, and then the Mountain Prince was there, nuzzling my sweating forehead. I was too dazed to react when he began to lick away the blood on my calf, even when his attention moved up to my thigh and then my arm; his tongue nearly wrapped around my bicep to clean the marks from the wolf's teeth. As a final touch, he tenderly swiped the back of my injured hand.
I smiled crookedly, and wrapped my arms around his neck, leaning heavily against his chest. His head dipped to press my shoulder against him, and then he began nudging very insistently until I let go of him and collapsed onto the floor. I was so tired… That nose poked me again in the ribs, and I partially rolled over to blink up at him. He growled and rooted under me again, until I understood he wanted me to get up off the floor. As soon as I sat up, he leaned his shoulder towards me; I grabbed hold of his ruff, and he tugged me upright. Staggering like a New Year's drunk, supported completely by the Mountain Prince, I wobbled over to my bed and basically face-planted onto it.
I would have stayed on top of the covers, passed out, nearly naked and probably hypothermic, but the dog wouldn't let me be. He pestered me with growls, nose-jabs and finally a paw-swat, until I wearily shoved the blankets back and rolled under them. The last sensation I remember was the touch of his nose on my cheek, then a disjointed thought wandered through my brain wondering how the Mountain Prince was going to get outside to do his business, and then everything faded to black.
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I woke up quite a long time later; squinting at the clock, I couldn't tell if it was AM or PM. The sky was dark, but that didn't tell me if it was the evening of the same day or early the next morning. While shifting around, feeling kind of warm and perhaps feverish, I heard the unmistakeable padding of paws on the floor. When I opened my eyes again, my visual field was full of moist black nostrils. Entranced, I watched the openings flare as he sniffed deeply…and then I was swiped thoroughly across the cheek by a pink tongue. Chuckling weakly, I slipped my hand out from under the blankets to stroke his head; he seemed to freeze when I scratched behind his ear, but then he leaned into the caress, his eyes closing in contentment.
When I exposed more of my arm while reaching for the other ear, he took the opportunity to lick the bite marks. "Owww…" I complained, when the pressure of his tongue on my bruised skin caused painful twinges. He just looked at me with those yellow eyes, which suddenly appeared to be very old and knowing…and abruptly burrowed his head under the blankets. "Hey! It's cold out there!" I protested, trying to pull the covers up around my bare shoulders. The dog ignored me, and it was my turn to freeze when I felt him licking the wounds on my leg before he emerged, his fur a little mussed. He shook himself, and everything settled sleekly back into place, then regarded me impassively. I cuddled deeper into the blankets, shivering a little. It was cold…shit! The generator… I groaned loudly, and the next thing I knew, I had the dog's muzzle in my face again.
"I have to go check on the generator…or else we might freeze…" He backed off. I lay there and thought about what I'd need to accomplish a trip outside. Groaning again, I moved as quickly as I could, rolling out of the warm bedding to hunt up a pair of stretchy pants, a fleece top, and a fresh pair of socks. My leg hurt, but it wasn't bleeding any more, just bruised. Staggering a bit, but that may have just been a function of low blood sugar as opposed to any microbes from the wolf-bites and dog-licks, I gathered all the scattered clothing and threw it in the laundry room, then pulled out my old jacket and shoved my feet into my boots. The dog followed me silently through the suite as I accomplished all this; when I reached for the door handle, he appeared beside me and looked at me expectantly. "Are you offering me some support? I'd be happy to accept…" He leaned against my leg; I sank my fingers into his fur, and we went outside.
The dog stuck to my side like he was glued there; he even came into the generator shed instead of waiting outside. I was lucky; the infernal machine started with barely a hiccup once I'd refilled the tank. I took a couple scoopfuls of seed and flung them in a wide arc over the lawn, and tossed out a handful of apples. Even this little bit of exertion made me break out in a cold sweat, and I was grateful to have the Mountain Prince to lean on as we headed back to the house.
When we reached the door, I paused with my hand on the lock and looked at him. "Would you rather stay outside? I-I can understand if you don't want to be in the house…" Those yellow cat's eyes locked on mine, and then the dog pushed the door open with his shoulder, stepping briskly in as if it had been his home all the long. My heart felt a bit lighter as I followed him, glad that he'd decided to keep me company.
I had made it to the kitchen before the dizziness hit again; it was all I could do to heat some water for ramen. After starting the pot on the burner, I slid down the cabinet doors to the floor and sat there with my head resting on my drawn-up knees. The Mountain Prince came over and nudged his head between my chest and my legs; I wrapped my arms around his neck and closed my eyes, leaning my cheek against the top of his head. We stayed that way until the water boiled; he braced me as I stood up, and pretty much held me upright while I poked at the noodles as they cooked and added a sliced cooked chicken breast and left-over vegetables. Once I had the bowl filled, my hands were shaking so badly that a trip to the table was likely to end in disaster, so I carefully sat back down on the floor, setting the bowl aside to let it cool for a few minutes.
The Mountain Prince observed me for a moment, then budged his way behind me, pushing me away from the cabinetry. "Hey, watch the bowl…" I moved it out of his way, wondering what the heck the dog was up to, until he laid down so that I could lean against him. "Oh… thanks. This is nice…" It was even nicer when his tail curled over my legs, but then I had to be careful not to spill my soup on his fur with my shaking hands. I managed. He watched me with his yellow eyes.
Once I'd eaten, I sat for a while longer until the food started making its way into my bloodstream, then staggered upright. The dog was instantly on his feet, and walked me across the kitchen to the sink. I rinsed my mouth out with clean water, had a long drink, and then decided that lying down some more was a good idea. I stumbled into my bedroom, shucked all my clothes including the underwear, and rolled back under the covers. I remembered a light touch on my cheek, and then nothing…
…I was being languidly licked…long, slow strokes…
Half surfacing from sleep, something trailed across my skin, feather-light and warm, and then my arm was gently grasped in what felt like long fingers before a warm, wet tongue was applied to the bites. Drowsing, I mumbled softly, and the light touch withdrew. When I fully woke up, the light in the sky was the same as previously, so I was no wiser as to the time of day.
The Mountain Prince watched me from in front of the fireplace; he was sprawled across the hearthrug, his chin resting on his paws. He looked pretty darn comfortable, I had to admit. I felt quite a bit better, so decided to have a shower. Putting on a robe, I started a fire in the fireplace in my bedroom, and when I came out of the shower, wrapped in a towel, the Mountain Prince was snoring softly beside my bed. I limped past him to retrieve some pyjamas from the chest of drawers. I dropped the towel, and was somewhat disconcerted to find myself being stared at rather intently. "Hey, turn around…no free shows, fella." He blinked…and turned around to face the other way. The fact that he seemed to understand brought me to a screeching stop, and I'll admit to blinking rather stupidly for a few moments, until I discovered I was becoming rapidly chilled, so scrambled into my pyjamas. "Okay…I'm decent." I trooped past him to hang up the towel, poked the fire a bit and put on another log, then decided to check in with the outside world.
When I fired up the computer, I discovered that I'd been out of commission for two days. I sent an email to let my boss know that I was still alive (didn't mention the fact that I very nearly wasn't) but that I'd been 'sick' and hoped to get back at the editing project by the next day. I ate some more ramen and had a cup of tea before going back into my room. The Mountain Prince was still flaked out on the floor, but while I fluffed the bedding, he roused himself enough to lumber over to the hearthrug. Yawning, I cuddled into the pillow; I heard the Mountain Prince rustling around before he, too, settled back down to sleep.
…Clouds of white softness surrounded me…I snuggled deeper, sighing contentedly…gentle hands stroked my hair…
It was snowing when I woke up the next morning.
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Over the next few weeks, while the bites healed nicely, the Mountain Prince and I developed a routine together. I would be awakened in the morning by either a wet, cold nose on whatever exposed bit of skin happened to be closest to the edge of the bed, or sometimes a feather-light lick on the cheek.
Trust me, this was a massive improvement over waking up with my ex-husband, whose morning breath could have been used as a biological weapon.
The dog would nudge me a few times to make sure I couldn't drowse off again, then wait on the rug until I had staggered into the bathroom to freshen up. Once I was dressed (he now left the room during this operation), he would stretch out on the rug in the kitchen and pretty much impede my breakfast-making, because I had to step over or around him every time I crossed the space.
Then, he would escort me outside while I did the snow-shovelling thing, fed the birds, checked the generator and all that other mundane stuff. Some days we left the sleigh on the platform, and climbed down onto the beach, spending an hour or so poking in tidal pools and turning over rocks to tease the crabs, or looking for interesting driftwood and rocks. Once I found a tiny clam shell, no bigger than my thumbnail, worn away into a perfect crescent moon shape. I exclaimed happily when I found it; I held it up to show the dog, beaming widely. I caught the oddest expression in his yellow eyes before he looked away and sniffed the wind. I tucked the shell into my pocket, and then added it to the small display of my findings I'd set up in the foyer of the house.
When we came in for lunch, he would make himself comfortable on either the hearthrug or the couch (he'd taken that item of furniture over on the third day) in front of the fire, and sleep while I worked on the computer. We'd go out for another walk before dinner, and then we were in for the night. I became used to him watching my every move, but even with all that close contact, I never felt right treating him like a dog. He was…just…too…I don't know, aristocratic for that.
However, the Mountain Prince was not above cadging a few caresses, but the contact was always on his terms.
The first time he let me know it was bedtime, in his opinion, I was too startled to react; after that, I used it as an excuse to scratch his ears and pet his massive head. He accepted my touch under this circumstance; indeed, seemed to even enjoy it. The routine went something like this; I'd be tapping away on the keyboard, editing or emailing, and he'd emit a loud, gusty sigh. If I ignored that, which I usually did to begin the game, next I'd hear him padding stealthily towards my chair. I'd continue what I was doing, pretending to be unaware of his approach. He would sit down beside my chair and wrap his tail around his haunches, the tip flicking rapidly against his front legs. If I kept on without even acknowledging his presence, soon a large paw would land on the edge of the chair. Usually, at this point I would mutter something in his direction, like "just a couple more minutes…" If that 'couple' turned into five or ten or more, I could count on his muzzle insinuating its way onto my lap, until his head had pushed between me and the desk. It was at this point I would 'absent-mindedly' drop one hand onto his head and fondle his ears while typing with the other.
This often kept him happy for twenty minutes or more, but at some point he'd decide enough was enough, and would lean his full weight onto one side of the steno chair. I would find myself spun to face him, pinioned by a plate-sized paw on either side of my hips, looking straight into yellow eyes. The first time he did this, I froze, because it was so unexpected. I held my breath as he regarded me beadily; then he slowly climbed down and kept my gaze, as if to say, "okay, woman, turn that thing off!" Now, after a couple of weeks of him doing this, I would just grin at him and reach over to turn off the screen. I'd bank the fire, and we'd retire for the night. Despite his preference for the couch, he always slept on the rug in front of the fireplace in my room.
My dreams during those weeks always featured an indistinct figure in white, either four-legged or two. Instead of being left behind, I always felt secure, that I was being cared for and watched over. Sometimes, I distinctly felt gentle caresses, as if hands were running lightly over my body.
The dog disappeared during each visit by the seaplane and its crew, but always reappeared the moment it climbed into the sky. I didn't mind; the whole situation was rather hard to explain to an outsider…although I often wondered what the Mountain Prince ate.
I always offered him some of my meal; he always turned up his nose and would stalk away to sit on the hearthrug. When we did our rounds in the mornings, he was always at my side or just in front of me, so he wasn't skipping out to chase rabbits. Chicken and fish sure weren't his thing…in fact, the only time he showed any interest in my food was the day I found some steaks in the freezer. They were neatly packaged, with the name of a prestigious Tokyo butcher on the wrap. It wasn't so much that, but the word 'Kobe' written in calligraphic flourishes that really caught my attention.
Whoo-hoo. This was the good stuff, and definitely proved that the family was well up there in the stratosphere in terms of income, if they left this quality of meat for the house-sitting staff. I left one package out on the counter to thaw while we did our rounds and worked into the afternoon. After our evening walk, I prepared the rice and vegetables, and pulled out the indoor grill to have a go at cooking what would undoubtedly be the most expensive piece of beef I'd ever eaten.
The meat had barely hit the hot grill when a large head appeared at my elbow, black nose snuffling intently, eyes glowing brightly. I smiled down at him, while setting the timer. "Hmm…so I finally find something that interests you, Mountain Prince. I'm afraid you'll have to try it cooked…" I nearly giggled when he continued to sit there, watching the grill intently the whole time the steak cooked; his nose was in constant motion, and his tongue swiped over his chops regularly. When the timer went off, I set the steak aside to cool slightly, and cooked the vegetables. Nose twitching, the dog followed my every move. Finally, I took out two bowls. I loaded mine up with rice and veggies, then cut the steak into thin slices, draping several over my meal and putting the rest into the other bowl. The dog, usually dignity incarnate, was almost squirming with anticipation. "Here you go…enjoy!" I put his portion down on the floor, and watched, bemused, while he briefly hesitated before neatly cleaning up every scrap. He chased the bowl across the kitchen, then collapsed on the rug with a contented sigh. I had to admit, the beef was delicious, but I still wasn't sure if I believed the promo literature that claimed the cattle were not only fed on the lees left over from high-quality sake brewing, but also hand-massaged every day to keep the meat tender…
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Things were pretty good. I had the Mountain Prince for company, even though he wasn't much of a talker, but just having his presence in my vicinity made me feel content. I was into the third month of my stay, and occasionally wondered what I was going to do about him when I had to leave. I entertained the daydream that I could take him back with me, but reality pointed out that he was unlikely to get on the plane, never mind be happy living in a Tokyo apartment with me.
Then, the events of the night before the full moon that month certainly skewed my perception of how the dog viewed me and had me seriously questioning my sanity.
I had woken up in the middle of the night, the brilliant moonlight flooding the room. A vagrant wind was stirring the loose snow outside, swirling and twirling it into sparkling curtains. I slipped out of bed and scampered to look out the window. The airy patterns being created by the ice crystals stirred something in my heart; before I knew it, I had dashed out of my room, through the suite, down the hall and into the enormous living room, where the show put on by the moon-lit dancing snow was on full display through the huge windows. I perched on one of the couches and watched for a while, and then was inspired to join in, dancing up and down in front of the windows, caught in the beauty of the moment.
Why not? There wasn't anyone there to see me and laugh…well, no one except the Mountain Prince, and he wasn't going to tell anybody.
At some point he'd joined me in the room; as I twirled and spun, I noticed that he was reclining on one of the leather couches, his front paws elegantly crossed at the joint, watching me with his head tilted on one side. I now had an audience, so I kept dancing until I was breathless. I then pirouetted up to him and bowed deeply before sitting on the floor beside the couch to look out the windows. "What a beautiful night…isn't it amazing?" His breath stirred the hair beside my ear, and I shivered. We sat for a few more minutes, admiring the snowy display, until I began to feel chilled, and skipped back towards the fire in my room.
I poked the embers to flame, then changed out of my sweaty pyjamas into a light nightgown. It was actually my favourite thing to sleep in, but in this house, pyjamas were the order of the day for their extra warmth in the morning. This nightgown had a deep vee neckline that had a tendency to slip off one shoulder or the other; it always made me feel girly when I wore it. I had bought it after the divorce was finalized, just to make myself feel desirable again…not that anybody had seen it. Living with your parents tends to cut down on any friskiness with dates, and those 'love hotels' weren't my style. The Mountain Prince had entered the room, and was lying across the threshold. Not his usual spot, but he seemed content.
I curled up on the hearthrug, basking in the warmth of the firelight. I was finger-combing my hair, gazing into the flames, when I was caught completely off-guard by a wet nose suddenly pressing itself into the exposed crook of my neck. I went rigid…then was made to tremble slightly when the dog lightly ran his tongue from my ear-lobe to down to my shoulder blade. He then moved silently away and lay down again on the threshold, his eyes glowing with some inner fire.
I couldn't help but stare at him. Had I just been…tasted? Or propositioned? That made me shiver again, but for different reasons. Things were just getting weirder…I banked the fire, and keeping an eye on the dog, climbed back into bed, wrapping the blankets tightly around me, facing the doorway.
…Long-fingered hands caressed my body, stroking and teasing the sensitive skin of my breasts. A hot mouth kissed its way up my throat to my ear, then nibbled across until it captured my lips in a searing, molten kiss that flooded my groin with arousal. I moaned into that mouth, while sliding my hands over silky skin, tangling in soft hair. The kisses and gentle hands tracked a course down my body until I was being touched at the very centre of my heat…I was on fire…
I bolted upright in bed, wide-eyed and panting, very hot and bothered, tangled in the linens. I looked around wildly, gasping, feeling a little disturbed at the intensity of the sensations of the dream, and even more disturbed when I caught myself wishing that it was actually happening…then realized that the Mountain Prince was staring at me intently, his yellow eyes glowing in the darkness of the room.
That was sobering. I took a couple of deep, cleansing breaths, and decided to go splash water on my face while trying to ignore the arousal surging almost painfully between my thighs. When I swung my legs out of bed, he rose silently and came towards me, an unreadable expression in his eyes. I smiled wryly at him before brushing past to the bathroom. "You're the only eligible male in a couple of hundred square miles…too bad you're the wrong species!"
After washing my face and neck, I straightened out the bedding, and slid back under the blankets. The dream kept coming back and spinning around my brain. I was puzzling over it, wondering why it was so real, attempting to ignore the near-overwhelming urge to touch myself to relieve my need…when I felt the mattress dip on the other side, and then a weight settled itself against my back. What…? A nose rested on the crook of my neck, and a gusty sigh sent warm air whooshing over my collarbone. I was starting to wonder what kind of reaction would be safe to have…fleeing the room was certainly an option… when the white fluffy tip of a certain dog's tail skittered over my hip and curled up under my chin, the rest of its length draped protectively over me. A soft rumbling noise from behind let me know that somebody was content with this arrangement.
I ended up not giving up my bed for the couch; it took me a long time to fall back asleep with the Mountain Prince's breath on my neck, but I finally did.
…Slender muscled arms adorned with unusual striping around the wrists cradled me protectively against a firm chest, the claw tipped fingers cupping and stroking, tracing and teasing while I shuddered in pleasure…
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The next morning, when I woke up, two things immediately absorbed my attention. The first was the fact that my nightgown was rucked up over my breasts, and the second was that the Mountain Prince was lying in his usual spot on the hearthrug. Once he was sure that I was awake, he padded out the door to slide onto the couch. He wouldn't meet my eye, and after our morning rounds, he disappeared into the bush.
He was gone that night, and didn't return for two more. This time, I decided not to go looking for him, since I really didn't want to run into any other canines. I stayed around the house and grounds, doing my daily routine but keeping an eye out for him. He arrived back in the dusk of the third day, his coat glowing against the dark backdrop of trees. I was thrilled to see him and caught myself running up to him. I did manage to stop myself from throwing my arms around his neck, but only just barely. "Hello, Mountain Prince…I missed you. Did you have a good hunt?" His expressive eyes seemed to widen at that, and he reached over to nuzzle my hand, before moving towards the house. I skipped along in his wake, extremely happy that he'd returned.
That night, I came out of the bathroom, and found the dog lying across the foot of my bed, eyes closed as if sleeping. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should kick him off, but then decided not to. I poked the fire one last time, then tucked my pyjama-clad self deeply under the covers and turned out the light. I was just drifting off, when I felt the mattress shift under his weight as he crept up to curl beside me, and his nose came to rest on the nape of my neck.
What should I do? I forced myself to relax, and told the small part of my brain that was running around screaming to shut up, already. He's just being protective. His tail curled over me, the tip flicking my chin a couple of times before curling around my wrist and going still.
…Burning, ravaging kisses…strong fingers, arousing, stroking…pale, striped skin gliding urgently, powerfully, rhythmically… shuddering, trembling, gasping…tender caresses, soft kisses…protected…secure…loved…
In the morning, my pyjamas were on the floor, along with the Mountain Prince; I didn't remember taking them off, but noticed how intensely the dog watched me, an odd, smouldering look in his eyes. I'm sure a psychologist would have a field day with all this; I wasn't sure if I should be creeped out or turned on…
What, you think the dog had something to do with all this? Oh, yeah…riiiight.
And I thought I was losing it…
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For the next three weeks on the island, I stopped fretting about the nightly visits of the figment of my undersexed imagination, to the extent that I gave up wearing pyjamas to bed, since they usually ended up on the floor anyways. Even though the activities I engaged in with him were the stuff of X-rated reading material (how would I know that? I work at a publishing house, remember, and somebody always has a new project that is a 'must see', if only for the sniggering factor), I never felt really concerned about my imagination apparently taking over my bodily responses. I just chalked it up to being so de-stressed and relaxed by the island experience that my libido had time to think about those things. How do I know the night-visitor was male? Trust me on this one…he was rampantly male.
If you're going to dream, dream big…
In the interests of research, I actually looked up the subject of erotic dreams on the 'net, and uncovered a fair bit of information on seductive demons or ghosts. I discovered that an 'incubus' was a demonic creature that came at night to sleep with young women, usually to steal their souls and thence their lives. I was feeling a little too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for that outcome…even though I noticed, in unguarded moments, the Mountain Prince watching me closely, some kind of hunger burning behind his eyes. If I glanced again, he was studiously looking in the other direction or had padded off to a different piece of furniture to snooze.
To be honest, I had considered locking the Mountain Prince out of the bedroom since he was somewhat unnerving with those glowing yellow eyes undoubtedly watching me as I dreamed very, very steamy scenarios. However, the only time I tried it, somehow, the dog was not only back in the room in the middle of the night, but also on the bed. I woke up to the sound of low growling behind me, and then the next thing I knew, he'd nipped me on the nape of the neck. "Ouch!" I yelped, now wide awake, and rolled over to give the dog a smack on the nose. I stilled when he gave me such a blistering look that I immediately dropped the idea of swatting him, my eyes wide, clutching the blanket nervously. A moment later, he had awkwardly curled himself around me, rumbling gently, his tail slipping up between us so that the tip could soothingly rub my cheek. It was odd, but that was the only night I didn't have any erotic dreams…just experienced strong sensations of being loved very deeply and needed very intensely.
After that, I never tried to keep the dog out of my room again. He slept on the bed with me, his tail draped over me like an extra blanket, his nose always against whatever patch of bare skin he could find, even if he had to burrow under the blankets to find one. I woke up in the depths of the night once with my back being washed by long, slow, sensuous licks. Not quite awake, I muttered a protest. He tensed, withdrew, then nuzzled my throat, and sighed deeply before falling back asleep with his nose in my ear. Somehow, I dozed off, and dreamed gently.
…Large hands tenderly caressing…tongue softly tasting…hard muscled frame…velvety skin…secure, strong arms…
I never had bad dreams, but the intensity of the erotic ones went up several notches after this…so much so, I often awoke in the morning with the undeniable evidence between my thighs that I'd had at least one orgasm during the night. However, aside from blurred glimpses, I could never clearly see my phantom lover. White and silver, slashes of vivid red, prickling claws…he was reduced to sensations and colours. My body's reaction to him wasn't imaginary, that's for damn sure.
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What was I going to do about the Mountain Prince when I had to leave? This question haunted my waking hours, and definitely factored into my decision to not boot him off the bed after that licking incident. I felt guilty that I would leave him…that I might have habituated him to the presence of humans, which could cost him his life once the owners arrived.
He now preferred to be near me. If I sat in front of the fire while reading a book, he would slide onto the other end of the couch, and within a few minutes, his head would be in my lap. I would gently scratch all those spots that dogs seem to like best; behind the ears and under the chin, the brow ridge and the back of the neck. He would sigh contentedly and his long tail would relax down onto the floor, the tip twitching occasionally. I really enjoyed those quiet moments.
What to do about him? The thought of him circling the house, wondering why he wasn't sitting inside with me before the fire nearly broke my heart. I planned wild schemes, such as drugging him to get him on the plane; then the reality of keeping this magnificent creature caged up in a Tokyo apartment had me shaking my head at my stupidity.
This was his home; I was only a visitor he found tolerable.
However, I really didn't want to leave, didn't want this enchanted existence to end. The island had worked its magic on my soul; I felt renewed and relaxed, and determined to enjoy my time left as much as possible by living in the moment.
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Two nights before the plane was due, I was pottering in the kitchen, dressed in nightgown and robe, cleaning up while finishing a cup of tea, trying resolutely to avoid thinking about the business of packing and preparing to leave the island. It was quiet and still, the sea glass-calm under a crescent moon; I was toying with the idea of doing a bit more work, or just curling up with a book next to my guardian dog in front of the fire. I had decided on the 'curling up' option, when my make-believe world lurched and skidded screaming into oblivion.
The Mountain Prince, lounging peacefully on the couch, suddenly rocketed to his feet in a full growl, his hackles standing up. I stared at him, the cup dangling from my fingers, and then he gave a great howling bark that rattled the windows, flew out the door and down the hall. He was trying to remove the front door from its hinges when I caught up; I hesitated at the sight of his furious eyes, but bravely dove forward and wrenched the door open. He stopped for a moment, pressed his head against my body…and in a heartbeat, he was gone.
I guess I'm at least as stupid as the heroines in some of those American horror movies that Chiyo dragged me to, because I didn't stay put in the house behind locked doors. Instead, I shoved my feet into my boots, pulled on a coat over the robe, and ran outside.
Voices? Huh? I crept around the side of the house and listened intently. Sure enough, there were voices coming from down by the water. Curious, instead of intelligent, I began treading toward them. I was about fifty feet from the house, when four figures showed up on the path leading from the dock. We all stopped dead and a flashlight shone in my face.
A very nasty snigger broke the silence. "Well, well, well…she's as pretty as you said, Kei…and so welcoming, too, to be already dressed for the occasion."
"Told you it'd be worth it." A familiar voice grunted back…I recognized it, and peered into the darkness. Jiro's co-pilot. My heart started racing, and I began backing up slowly.
"W-what do you want?" My voice came out a little quavering in the stillness.
"Oh, we just want to have some fun with you, little girl. We've come a long way, and we're expecting some hospitality." I decided I really didn't like the voice or the speaker, and backed up some more. The voice laughed darkly. "You can run, but you can't hide, little girl…there's no one to hear you scream. We'll leave your body where it'll be found, unless the wolves get to it first…"
Letting out a small shriek, I turned…a white blur blasted out of the underbrush and resolved itself into the Mountain Prince, blocking the path between me and the intruders. I paused; his reddened eyes flashed over his shoulder, sending an unmistakeable command…run!
So I did, pelting headlong for the house, until the sounds of his savage growls were fading behind me. I flew into the foyer, kicked off the boots, and raced for the radio-phone, only to find that it was now past eleven…and Jiro's end was unmanned. Dammit. I locked both sets of doors, turned off all the lights and crouched next to the windows that looked down towards the dock, straining my eyes and ears for any indication of what was going on.
Minutes dragged like hours, and I was seriously considering going outside again to look around, when the Mountain Prince saved me from doing anything so stupid. His large form limped up the path from the dock, his coat glowing in the faint moonlight. Then he collapsed. Yelping, I ran for the door…only to bounce off because I'd locked it…then tore it open, raced down the corridor, jumped into my boots and hurt my wrist again when the front door turned out to also be locked. Duh.
The men could have been standing right outside the door, and I would have run right through them because I was so focussed on one thing. He had managed to find his feet by the time I reached him, but he was swaying dangerously. I noticed that the white fur of his left leg was dark with blood, and looked badly cut. Quickly, I ripped the belt off my robe and doubled it, tying it tightly up where the leg joined his body. He nearly fell over again; I braced him against my hip and wrapped my arms around him. "Come on, my Prince…I won't let you go…"
We'd make about ten feet, and then he'd have to rest. I kept my arms around him each time we stopped, cooing to him, talking soft nonsense, willing him to keep moving. Somehow, he did, and we staggered into the foyer. I let him lay down while I shut the door and locked it, then shucked my coat. I had full intentions of taking him into the suite and putting him in front of the fire, but one look at him lying there, his eyes half-closed and his breathing laboured, made me realize it was only a tremendous force of will that had brought him this far. He could go no farther.
Fighting back the tears, I knelt beside him and drew his head into my lap. His eyes opened fully for a moment, and his tail thumped once, then he nestled close to my belly and sighed. I started talking softly to him, while I stroked his ears and his fur. Very gently, I cupped his muzzle and scratched along his jaw while I crooned tender thanks to him for rescuing me yet again. His heart fluttered inside his ribcage, but I could tell it was slowing. He'd lost too much blood.
Finally, I couldn't hold back, and since there wasn't anyone to see me make a fool of myself over this beautiful, brave dog, I cradled his head and pressed a kiss onto his brow, right between his eyes, then bent farther over and hugged him to me. "Mountain Prince…please don't leave me…I love you…please don't go…not yet…" My voice cracked and I sobbed into his fur, my hands clenching into his ruff.
As I rubbed my cheek against his head, I became aware of a subtle shifting, a change in how his body lay in my lap, and an alteration in the texture of the fur into which I had sunk my fingers. Opening my eyes, the first thing I saw was a shimmering pool of silver spreading across the dark slate floor. Entranced as well as a bit stunned, I ran my fingertips through that waterfall of silken moonbeams…and then I noticed the rest of him.
The Mountain Prince's body had elongated and stretched…and his fur no longer covered all of him. Instead, from his shoulders to his hips, his slender body was looped in wide furry coils, giving glimpses of the pale skin and defined muscles underneath. His arms were bare, his fingers tipped in long, lethal-looking claws and his wrists, hips and ankles ribboned with red…the striping that I remembered with sudden, jolting clarity from my dreams. Trailing out across the foyer, a long tail curled; the very tip thumped weakly a couple of times, then lay still.
My heart stopped, then kick-started into a higher tempo. I was astonished, but strangely, I wasn't truly afraid. A very tiny part of my brain was having hysterics, screaming to get away, but I couldn't make myself move; the other, larger part quietly encouraged me to hold him close, to touch him, to comfort him, to simply be with him. He needed me now, as I had needed him before. To abandon him now…I simply could not do it.
Somewhere inside of me, my soul was singing a joyous lament. It knew this being, knew his soul…and also knew his time was short.
Mesmerized, my fingers sought an ear to rub while I gazed over his body…and found bare skin and a pointed tip instead. I outlined it with my fingertip, and its owner trembled against my thighs. Carefully, I shifted around, until I could see his face without putting too much strain on his neck.
My Mountain Prince had become an eerily beautiful, almost-but-not-quite human in appearance. He had finely chiselled cheekbones, each marked with crisply-defined dual tiger-stripes that disappeared into his hairline and a crescent moon on the centre of his brow. My thumb tenderly caressed the stripes while my other hand stroked his bangs off his face and slid through his silver hair, pausing to rub his back under the covering of white fur. Greatly daring, I let one hand trail down his jaw, across his neck and up over his bare shoulder, then down his arm to trace the stripes at his wrist, and touch those claws. He opened his eyes.
If I had any doubts that this was my Mountain Prince, as soon as I saw those familiar yellow old-knowing eyes I knew beyond all possibilities that this was indeed he. Memories locked deep in my being broke their bonds, and I knew that this was the first time I had held him as he hovered at the doorway of death-sleep; always before he had held me as I slipped away from him, lost in a new skin until he could find me again. I held very still, smiling softly at him, even though my heart was cracking like a piece of crystal.
He sighed deeply, half-closing his eyes, then opened them again to search my face, seemingly looking for something. Seized by an undeniable impulse, I bent down and tenderly kissed his lips; they parted against mine. He tasted of fresh snow, sunshine, salt spray and life.
A kiss, not of good-bye, but until we meet again.
Wavering slightly, one of his hands lifted to my cheek, those lethal-looking claws curled away from my skin. I leaned into the caress, my fingers circling his wrist, my eyes never leaving his, trying to imprint this moment on my memory.
I had just found him, and he was lost to me…as was his name…
He'd never left me before…I had always left him behind, caught in the endless cycles of life, death, rebirth. I felt impossibly old, I felt impossibly young. We were poised on the rim of a moment in time, and the gate-keepers of the realm of endless night held their breath and waited for us.
His yellow eyes watched my face intently; his claws slipped from my cheek to stroke through the lock of hair that fell over my shoulder, then curled around my hand. I knew he was slipping away; my throat went dry and my heart hammered irregularly, making it hard to breath, to think. "Please don't...don't leave me…I need you…" He inhaled deeply and it was clearly an effort. His voice, dry and thin and very, very faint, came from very far away.
He sighed my name; his eyes fluttered closed, and I thought…I feared…
"…wait for me."
His body sagged slightly, his hand tightened around mine, then fell away.
He was gone.
I buried my fingers in his silver hair, in the white fur, tears pouring down my cheeks to dampen his upturned face. Cradling his head tenderly, I began to rock, my heart wrenching, consumed in pain, until I screamed my anguish at the silent, unfeeling house. At that moment, his body shimmered and dissolved into sparkling crystalline dust, trickling through my fingers, outlining where he had lain against the dark slate.
Any curious woodland spirit peering in through the etched glass panels surrounding the door would have glimpsed a sobbing, broken woman, her face in her hands, surrounded by shattered dreams.
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