Dark of Night
Author: Kristen Sharpe
Date: August 16, 2006
Disclaimer: Inuyasha, the character and the series, belongs to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan Inc., and Sunrise.
Notes: Where this story takes place in the canon timeline is entirely open to interpretation.
It was well after sundown when she came, her aching legs stumbling up the steps to the temple. She paused at the summit and moved a hand to clutch at the dull pain in her side. The other hand cradled a bundle that stirred only faintly in the crook of her arm. She blindly flashed the tiny face nestled there a warm smile.
There was precious little light to see by. The moon's face was hidden. The stars were lost in a veil of clouds. But, she knew by the gentle rhythm of life emanating from her precious cargo that he was resting contentedly.
She turned toward the temple complex, and the smile faded. As she had been told, the gate that should have stood before her was nothing but so much shattered timber. But, warm lights shone dimly from the temple buildings. It was a comforting sight, but her face drew tight with worry.
She tried to calm herself. This was a temple, a holy place. It would be safe. There was an oppressive chill in the air tonight. The ominous sense of dark forces moving. But, this temple had weathered attacks and still stood. The youkai could not enter here.
The thought froze her as fast as it had comforted her. An icy chill slithered through her veins.
The youkai could not enter. Wards were in place to bar entry to all but the strongest of their number.
Her gaze again dropped to the delicate bundle held close to her heart.
Youkai could not enter.
She started like a frightened animal at the voice. Turning, her wide eyes found the figure of a man clad in the robes of a monk. Any other details were indistinguishable, hidden behind the shuddering glow of the lantern he carried.
Forcing the fear from her face, she stepped towards him.
"I was only seeking shelter for the night, honored monk." Her voice was a whisper, trembling with the fear of being turned away.
The monk seemed to study her. She knew she must look dreadful even in the darkness. She had had little rest in days, and her kosode was tattered and filthy.
A stab of sadness tore at her heart as she remembered the sun-soaked afternoon on which a far finer garment had been held up to her delighted eyes as a gift. But, it had been poorly suited to her present situation, and the simpler outfit was all she had now.
She stifled the flood of
memories harshly. There was no time for her
self-pity. And, she would not deny that it was her choices that had led her here. Choices she would make again with no second thoughts.
"Come," the monk's quiet voice reached her ears, "you may rest here safely." His head tilted skyward. "It is a bad night to be without shelter."
Her resolve strengthened by her reflections, the woman followed his lead. Gentle hands pulled the blanket that swathed her son low over his face. They would be safe here. They must be.
The monk led them toward the temple's entryway. As they neared it, the woman's dark eyes fell on a flash of white resting innocuously alongside the opening. Her stomach clenched in fear.
They had to be safe here. Both of them.
The monk's lantern caught the incongruous rectangle guarding the door, revealing it. And, confirming her fears.
Her heart sank.
An ofuda. A ward to keep evil spirits at bay.
Her gaze fell to the tiny being cuddled close to her breast, now beginning to stir faintly. Surely there was no evil in him. His heritage was no fault of his own.
As they mounted the few stairs to the entrance, a roar rent the stillness of the night. Savage and hungry, it tore up from the valley below and echoed off the surrounding hills. It was a feral cry that froze her blood as even the sight of the ofuda could not. The child wailed in fear as she clutched him to her all the more desperately.
"Quickly!" Her guide was at her side in an instant, tugging her toward the entrance. "Get inside and stay there. The wards will keep you safe."
She made no conscious resistance. It was only her weary legs, as heavy and clumsy as blocks of wood, that kept herself and the child from being thrust through the warded doorway. The monk didn't notice. By the time she had recovered her balance, he was already hurrying away, hopefully to rally some stronger defense than paper wards.
Alone suddenly, save for the child, she watched the light vanish into the darkness. Murmuring soothing nonsense to the child, she cast a hesitant glance toward the waiting entryway.
"Are you coming in here or not?"
A scream almost escaped her throat as she lurched backward on shaking legs. The voice had come from within the temple. As her eyes adjusted to the wan light from within, she realized there was a figure standing just inside.
"Well?" the figure demanded.
The voice was male. Was it another monk?
"I—" What could she say?
With an irritable growl, the man stepped out of the doorway and seized her arm, tugging her forward. Realizing his intent, she shrieked and pulled away. The child wailed all the louder.
"Oi!" The man backed away immediately, holding his hands up. "Don't do that! I was just trying to help!"
"I'm sorry. I—" She took a step back. "I should leave."
"What? You can't go out there! Did you hear that roar? You'll end up as some youkai's dinner!"
It wasn't an unreasonable assumption. Dimly, she could hear the roar of more youkai and the din of a battle of some sort echoing up from the valley below.
"I—" She shifted the child in her arms, subconsciously stroking his head to calm him.
The man's gaze dropped to the baby. She glanced down at her son. With horror, she realized that the blanket had fallen from his head when she had struggled with the strange man. Quickly, she tugged the blanket back over the child.
Had he seen? It was dark. Surely—
"Keh. Is that it?"
The woman raised horrified eyes to the strange man. But, he had turned away and was walking back toward the doorway. Reaching it, he grabbed the fuda plastered to the wooden frame and yanked it free. There was a flicker of light as the power faded from the now useless ward.
"There," said the man. "Now, come on." He crumpled the fuda in his fist and let it drop to the floor. Then, he moved on inside without another word.
For several long moments, the woman could only stare after him in shock. Then, with a dawning understanding of her good fortune, she stumbled after her benefactor.
She and the child crossed the threshold with no ill effects, and she found herself in a room lit dimly by a series of lanterns on raised stands. There was a small group of fellow travelers huddled at the far end of the room. They looked up quickly as she entered, and she found herself the object of sudden scrutiny. Uncomfortable, she turned away from their gaze. Spying who she assumed was the man from before sitting some distance from the other travelers, she moved to join him.
He sat with his back to the wall, staring at nothing. As she approached, he looked up, eyeing her with a mixture of curiosity and wariness. Now in better light, she could see his features properly. He was a very young man, hardly more than a boy. Long hair fell unbound around his face. A sword was propped against his shoulder.
As he watched, she smiled at him and settled against the wall herself. He looked away, and she again busied herself in trying to lull the wailing babe to sleep. The child relaxed with little trouble. Clearly, he was as tired from their travels as she.
"It's asleep now?"
Surprised, the woman looked up at the strange man who had helped her. He was not looking at her.
"Yes," she said.
"Good." His gaze was fixed on the opposite side of the room.
Curious, she followed it and found two men from the group resting there studying her and her companion. Fear crept over her heart anew.
"What do they want?" she asked in an urgent whisper.
"Just thinking about causing trouble," the man answered, glaring fiercely at the two.
After a moment, they looked away.
The man turned back to her. "They won't try anything now," he said.
Still fearful, she shot the other men a furtive glance. They had their backs to her now and were conversing quietly among themselves. Turning away, she found her strange companion watching her.
"Wha—" she began haltingly, "what did they want?"
The man frowned and seemed to be ready to deflect the question with another curt response. But then, he paused and looked to the side. "It was the baby," he explained, avoiding eye contact. "They thought it would attract the youkai."
She stared at him a moment, uncomprehending. Then, realization crashed down on her. The other men would have thrown her out. Or worse, killed the child to keep him silent.
Her entire body shook. Her arms reflexively tightened around the sleeping child. Then, realizing, she loosened her grip. If she woke him again, he might well die. Her temporary ally had taken pity on her this time, but he was unlikely to fight for her. Even if he did, what could one young man do against many?
A silent tear rolled down her cheek.
"Oi!" The strange man seemed frantic. "No one will do anything now." He looked so desperate for her to believe him that the woman found she could not help but do so.
She forced a weak smile to her lips.
It seemed to placate him somewhat.
"You should just go to sleep too," he advised. The gruffness was back in his voice.
"I— Will it be safe?" She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Since that ward is gone is it safe?"
The man snorted. "The monks will take care of the youkai. If they can't, then their wards won't be much good either."
Despite his flippant words, she imagined that she could see his fingers tighten around his sword in the dim light. Unsure how else to respond, she merely nodded in response. His words held little comfort, but, somehow, she felt safe in his company.
And, she was so very tired.
Slowly, her eyes drifted shut, and she fell into her first truly restful sleep in over a month.
She awoke to the peculiarly gray light of predawn. The child was fussing in her arms. Mechanically, she moved to feed him. Then, she paused, remembering where she was. She looked around quickly.
The lanterns had been extinguished, and the room was lit only by the wan light from outside. The other travelers were still across the room, apparently asleep.
But, her companion was gone.
Surprised, she searched the room again, but saw no sign of him. Had he stepped out to relieve himself?
Somehow, she felt in her heart that that was not the case.
Quietly, she stood and tiptoed to the doorway, lightly bouncing the hungry child. Stepping out onto the engawa that circled the building, she spied the man. He was heading for the stairway that led down to the village and the main road.
He was leaving, she realized.
"Wait!" She stumbled down the temple steps and began to run after him. She wanted to at least thank him for his kindness.
As she ran, he turned and looked at her. He opened his mouth to speak.
At that moment, the sun finally crested the horizon, and its first rays spilled over his dark hair. Immediately, he froze, staring at her in something much like fright. Then, he seemed to resign himself and quietly bowed his head.
She stopped, confused by his actions. As she watched, his form wavered, and she could only stare in shock as he… changed.
In a few minutes, it was over. Slowly, he looked up at her.
She was still frozen. Then, glancing down at her fretting son, she understood. She looked up again, meeting the man's gaze, and smiled.
He smiled back hesitantly.
And then, he was gone.
She continued to stare at the place where he had stood for several minutes before coming to a decision. With a glance back at the temple, she started down the stairs. It would be wisest to follow her friend's lead and be gone before anyone woke. She would stop and feed her son in a more secluded place along the way.
For the first time in many months her heart felt light. She was not alone. Her son was not alone.
Yes, Inuyasha was present in this fic. But, I leave it up to you to decide who he was.