Ashitaka warily tread through the forest. It had been half a year since the Shishigami had fallen and when Ashitaka said good bye to San, Mononoke-hime, to rebuild Tatabara. Now Ashitaka was back in the once-enchanted forest with his elk, Yakuo. Ashitaka gripped at Yakuo's reigns. Would San still trust him after all this time? After all, he hadn't sided with her when Lady Eboshi had tried to destroy the forest.
Ashitaka shook himself. San loves me, he reminded himself. Urging Yakuo on, Ashitaka went deeper into the forest. As Ashitaka grew used to the sounds of the forest, he relaxed. The forest was beautiful; perhaps even more so since the fall of the Shishigami. If Ashitaka had not been wounded with a curse by the boar god, Nago, then he would never seen such beauty, or have met San, Mononoke-hime, his love.
Ashitaka remembered the route well to where San and her wolf brothers lived. It was here that he firs t saw the Shishigami. A branch snapped, breaking Ashitaka from his thoughts. What was that? Ashitaka climbed off Yakuo slowly. The noise had ceased. Were the humans attacking the forest again? Ashitaka drew his bow.
"Ashitaka!" Ashitaka looked up at the tree where he heard his name. A sudden smile spread on his face.
"San!" Ashitaka cried happily, dropping the bow and arrow. He quickly jumped in the tree and threw himself in San's arms.
"Oh, San." That was all Ashitaka said at the moment. He let himself do nothing except breathe in San's scent.
"It's good to see you again, San." Ashitaka said when he had let go.
"It's good to see you too, Ashitaka." San smiled too. They both on the ground now. Yakuo was drinking from the cool water from the pool.
They both sat there for a while saying nothing. At last San spoke. "I've missed you, Ashitaka."
Ashitaka was surprised. During the time he had known San, San had never exploited weakness to him. Ashitaka didn't forget that San never left his side when they took back the head of the Shishigami. Then shock overcame him. San was crying.
"I've missed you so much, Ashitaka. And I'm afraid of losing you. What if you become human again?" San didn't attempted to hide her distress.
"San…" Ashitaka took San's hands, and held hers in his own. "San, that won't happen. I'll never leave you for them, I promise you, San." Ashitaka held San in his arms. An emotion took over him suddenly. Careful not to startle San, he Ashitaka kissed San gently on the lips.
Ashitaka could feel San's surprise, but San didn't pull away. When they broke apart, Ashitaka said, "I love you, San. I won't ever leave you" He stroked San's hair tenderly. "I promise," Ashitaka whispered repeatedly in San's ear.
"San?" San was silent, her expression expressionless. Then her face softened.
San leaned in to Ashitaka. "I love you too, Ashitaka." Then she kissed him.
There they made love.
Ashitaka looked in the distance from Tatabara to the forest. Ashitaka sighed. He looked away from the forest. Toki, extremely pregnant with Kohuroku's child, and one of Ashitaka's closest friends in Tatabara, looked up in surprise.
"Ashitaka-sama, what's wrong?" Her eyes echoed the worry that she felt for the young man that had saved Tatabara from destruction.
Ashitaka looked up from the weeds he was pulling. "It's nothing, Toki," Ashitaka told her with a smile.
Toki didn't look convinced, but she didn't say anything, and went back to pulling weeds.
As soon as Toki turned, Ashitaka's smile melted away. His thoughts were not on pulling the weeds from Toki's garden. His thoughts were on San. A week later after making love to her, Ashitaka had visited San again. San, from what Ashitaka could tell, was sick. San had ordered Ashitaka to leave. A month had passed, and Ashitaka seen no sign of San. Ashitaka's brow scrunched in worry. What was wrong with San?
After another hour of pulling weeds finished and done, Ashitaka decided to visit the forest again. Putting on another change of clothes, Ashitaka walked out to the entrance of Tatabara. This time, Ashitaka would not take Yakuo. The familiar whispers surrounded Ashitaka as he walked whisky by. Ashitaka was familiar with the whispers that followed him ever since he had returned from the forest to rebuild Tatabara. Unknown to Ashitaka, the people of Tatabara whispered that Ashitaka had strength like a demon, and bravery like a god. This caused Ashitaka to gain a nickname: Akuma, which meant, Demon. The people of Tatabara also whispered that Ashitaka was secretly seeing Monononoke-hime, also known as San, and that he was in love with the enchanted princess.
They were right about one thing: Ashitaka was seeing San, and that he was in love with her. More than the people of Tatabara could understand. When Ashitaka was stripped of his curse, he had lost the demon-like strength that he had once carried – but Ashitaka was still the very powerful. Ashitaka could kill in an instant if he chose to, and Ashitaka possessed near inhuman strength, and no one, not even Ganza, questioned his bravery and loyalty.
It was Kouroku. Even though it had been six months since the gods had faded, Lady Eboshi ordered the town to be guarded – especially at night.
"Kouroku!" Ashitaka smiled at his clumsy friend. "Are you guarding tonight?"
"Hai." Kouroku puffed out his chest importantly. "I think Lady Eboshi is starting to trust me." Kouroku's voice softened when he spoke of his wife. "How is Toki?"
"She is fine, and she didn't overdo it with the weeding today," Ashitaka said.
"Toki's getting big, isn't she?"
"Are getting excited about being a father?" Ashitaka asked.
"Yes." Kouroku's eyes spoke of pure happiness. "Two more months of waiting. It's be spring then. Where are going at this time at night?" Kohuroku asked Ashitaka then.
"Into the forest," Ashitaka simply said.
Kouroku suddenly looked alarmed. "T – the forest?" He repeated. "It's dangerous, Ashitaka-sama! Are you…going to see Mononoke – I mean, San?" he asked.
"Hai." A wolf howled as Ashitaka whispered that word. Suddenly Ashitaka had a far-away look in his eyes. "I am." Then Ashitaka sprinted off into the distance.
"Be careful, Ashitaka-sama," Kouroku whispered.
Ashitaka walked slowly to where he had seen San. A month earlier, he had found her curled up in ball, in obvious pain. San was finding it hard to breathe.
"San…" Ashitaka had called, trying to take her hand. San swatted it away.
"Go…away…." San had hoarsely whispered.
Ashitaka tried to go near San again, but San turned to him and said, "Go away and never come back!"
What happened with San? Ashitaka wondered. Was it because that she was sick that she acted that way? Or was it because he human? Ashitaka suppressed a shudder. San had loathed humans – including him, but since the fall of the Shishigami, San seemed to have softened.
In the corner of his eye, Ashitaka spotted a form by the water. His heart leaped. It was San.
"San!" Ashitaka cried joyously. "San?" he repeated when there was no answer from the form sitting still by the water. Ashitaka sat by San. Their reflections in the water gazed up at them.
"Ashitaka." San finally spoke, although she didn't look at him. "Gomen nasai, I didn't mean to treat you the way I did when we last met. It's just…" her voice faded away.
"What, San?" Ashitaka gaze tried to meet San's.
San's gaze met Ashitaka. "I'm expecting a child. Yours."
When Ashitaka returned to Tatabara, he went straight to the Lepers, or rather now, the Iron Makers. When the Shishigami died, he rejuvenated the forest that had been previously destroyed, and he didn't just leave that behind; he had the Lepers, who were so scarred with burns that they hide the burns with bandages out of shame, healed. Now the Lepers could walk freely again, no longer afraid. That was also how Ashitaka had been lifted of his curse. The former Lepers also established a trade, and something they could be proud of: iron making.
"Shin!" Ashitaka called for the leader of the Iron Makers.
"Ashitaka-san!" Shin called happily. "What do you need, my boy?"
"Two rings, made out of iron, please." Ashitaka immediately said.
"Wedding rings?" Shin teased. Ashitaka said nothing. "I'll make them for you." Shin immediately disappeared and started working.
Ashitaka strayed outside of the workplace of the Iron Makers. Ashitaka needed time to think. San's information was still going through his mind. "I'm expecting a child. Yours." Ashitaka knew that he would become a father someday, as it was expected of him, but not this soon, nor away from his people, the Emishi tribe. Ashitaka remembered his own father, who had died in battle when Ashitaka was thirteen. Ashitaka's father had been proud and strong, but also a gentle and kind king. Ashitaka wanted to be just like his father as boy, and he had vowed he would be the same with his own children. Ashitaka wondered now if that would come true.
"Ashitaka-san!" A voice interrupted his thoughts. The voice belonged to Sayuri, the lone woman in the Iron Makers. "Your rings are done." As suddenly as Sayuri had appeared, Sayuri disappeared from sight.
"Your rings, Ashitaka-san." Shin handed them to Ashitaka. They still warm is Ashitaka's hand.
"Arigatou," Ashitaka thanked Shin vaguely. He traced the rings, wondering what he was going to say to San.
"Good luck," Shin whispered. He winked.
"San," Ashitaka whispered to San's sleeping form. "San," he whispered more urgently.
San woke up, blinking her eyes open. She smiled when she saw Ashitaka. "I was afraid that you wouldn't come back."
"Never." Saying this, Ashitaka realized it was true. He would never leave San, because he loved her so much. "I'll never leave you," he promised.
Ashitaka slipped San's ring onto her finger.
"Ashitaka…" San was at loss for words when she saw the ring.
"I would like to spend my life with you, San." Ashitaka slipped his own ring on his finger. "I would like to commit my life to you, as a husband. But only if you agree."
San didn't say anything for a moment. Then she said, "Remember when you gave me the crystal dagger?" she asked.
Ashitaka remembered well. "Yes."
"We all ready husband and wife then, Ashitaka. We don't need rings. We only need each other, because…we love each other. I love you, and your love is no different from mine." San slipped her ring off of her finger; Ashitaka did the same.
"I will accept you as my husband, Ashitaka. I love you." San said as she held Ashitaka close.
"And I will accept you as my wife, San." Ashitaka kissed San's forehead. "I love you," he said as they began to kiss again.
This time, as husband and wife, they made love again.
"San!" Ashitaka cried desperately.
San hissed in pain. "Ashitaka, go!" San's hands scraped the autumn leaves. She hissed in pain again.
Ashitaka looked around feverishly. San had refused a midwife when her time came. San said she wanted to go through her time like her mother, Moro, did with San's wolf brothers: without any help and without anyone seeing. And Ashitaka disobeyed her, and refused to leave her side.
A ripple passed through San's body. San screamed in pain.
"San!" Ashitaka tried to move closer to San, but one of San's wolf brothers blocked his way. The wolf growled, signifying that Ashitaka should leave. Ashitaka had not forgotten that the wolf brother almost tore Ashitaka's head off. He would certainly do this same again, and he would not fail. Ashitaka left San alone.
For hours, Ashitaka paced as he heard San's growls and moans in pain. Ashitaka thought of how he had first met San. Ashitaka had recently rescued Kouroku and his friend from the river when Ashitaka spotted a wounded gigantic wolf with two tails. Ashitaka watched with amazement as he saw two other wolves come up to the larger wounded one. There was a human too, wearing furs, and jumped down from the other wolf. The human started to suck the blood from the other wolf's wound when the larger wolf growled in Ashitaka's direction. The human followed the wolf's eyes.
That was how Ashitaka first caught sight of Moro, the Wolf God and her pups. And San, Mononoke-hime.
San's screams of pain subsided. It was a couple of moments before Ashitaka heard the cry. The cry of a newborn infant. Ashitaka ran towards the sound, and as he was running, another cry joined the other. Two? Ashitaka thought.
Ashitaka found San with eyes closed with fatigue. Near her body lay San's two wolf brothers. There bodies surrounded two bawling male infants. Ashitaka gave a sigh of relief. He had not lost San, or his children. Ashitaka gave a faint smile as he crouched down next to San.
"San," Ashitaka whispered, "San."
San slowly opened her eyes. "Ashitaka," was all she said.
"I'm glad I didn't loose you." Ashitaka stated, rubbing San's cheek.
San nodded when she closed her eyes again; not in relief; in pain.
"Ashitaka, you need to leave!" San groaned to her husband. More quietly she said, "It's happening again." San gave a hiss in pain.
Ashitaka stood his ground. "I'm not leaving you again," he replied firmly.
San, after a couple of moments, nodded. "Then help," she said.
Two minutes later their only daughter was born. But unlike her brothers, she did not cry. She was still as a stone. Ashitaka rushed over to the still infant.
"Breathe, child," Ashitaka pleaded, "Breathe!" Ashitaka's daughter wouldn't hear him, and lay still as a stone. "No," Ashitaka replied hoarsely. "No!" Desperately, Ashitaka put his mouth to his daughter's, took a breath, and breathed.
All was still for a moment. Then the baby girl began to cry. The air that she didn't have before filled her lungs, and her cries echoed in the forest.
"San," Ashitaka cried joyously, picking his still-bawling daughter up, "our daughter is -" Ashitaka stopped once he saw San's expression.
San looked at her daughter with distaste. "Kill her," San whispered.
"What?" Ashitaka said.
"Kill her," San repeated. "If she is not able to breathe on her own for the first time, then she won't be able to survive on her own. She is weak, and I have no use for weak children. Go. Take her to the river and drown her."
But San -" Ashitaka tried to explain.
"Go!" San roared.
Ashitaka ran with his infant daughter screaming in his arms. Why, was his only thought. How could San destroy their only daughter? Ashitaka couldn't, even though he was considered the strongest man in Tataraba.
Ashitaka was near the river now. He held his daughter, who cries had suddenly ceased. Did she know what was about to happen?
As Ashitaka held his infant daughter above the river that would suddenly end her life, Ashitaka realized he couldn't do it. Ashitaka could not kill his life and blood.
Ashitaka could feel his daughter's hands grasp his as he pulled her away from the water. Her grip was strong.
San is wrong, Ashitaka thought as he stared down at his daughter, our daughter is strong.
A swell of determination overcame Ashitaka. Taking off his shirt, Ashitaka wrapped it around the infant, who was starting to shiver with cold. Ashitaka hurriedly ran towards Tataraba.
And she will survive.