Chapter 2: Absolution
Three days later, Izark led the horse the mayor of Calco had gifted him with up a steep mountain slope. Noriko clung awkwardly to the beast's back, hanging on to the saddle for dear life.
When he was fully recovered, completing his mission had been relatively easy. The only twist in the whole business was that Niva—the merchant who had been a spy for the thieves—turned out to have a rather unusual bodyguard. Izark just knew he was going to regret not being able to kill the strange warrior when he had had the chance.
The swordsman sighed, shrugging off the thought. He had more immediate problems to deal with, not least of them being—turning to coax the horse up a particularly rough incline, he stole a glance back at the girl on her perch. Though she was definitely improved from the catatonic stupor she'd been in during the hours after their battle with the thieves, the contrast between this solemn, silent young woman and the peppy little chatterbox he'd brought out of the Sea of Trees was still disturbing. If Izark didn't understand exactly what had happened that night in that storage, he might have thought they were different people entirely.
But he did know. He knew all too well.
An hour later they entered a pass, and the trail leveled out considerably. If the information the cloth peddler had given Izark was correct, the path led to a river, and then followed the watercourse down to a ford where crossing was safer. According to the merchant, there should be a good camping site near where the trail bent at the riverbank. The swordsman kept his eyes peeled for the lean-to the peddler had described. After several minutes of walking, his ears detected the sound of rushing water.
Evidently Noriko heard it too. Since the path had leveled out she no longer need fear sliding off the horse's rump, and she had gone back to the brooding contemplation that Izark found so uncharacteristic. Upon hearing the river, however, the girl looked up and focused on their surroundings.
Eventually the young warrior spotted the lean-to, and they set up camp. Well—Izark set up camp; Noriko's lack of basic skills such as making a fire still astounded him, and he wondered just who she had been in her world. In this world, only the wealthy could afford not to learn such things. Rather than trying to mime how she was supposed to help him, he sent the girl to the river for water.
The young man had a decent fire going by the time he realized that Noriko had yet to return. No—she had returned, because he found both the canteen and the leather bladder he'd given her to fill with their bags under the lean-to, sweating as the air around them condensed due to the icy water they contained.
Concerned, the warrior homed in on his charge's presence before off toward the river at a brisk pace. He couldn't sense any danger, but it was unusual for Noriko to go off on her own; over the passed few days, she'd never once set foot outside a camp unless he gave her some task that required it.
He found her a little upriver, knee deep in a small eddy (a place where the current is disrupted so that it swirls instead of flowing). Watching from the tree line, Izark saw her bend and scoop up some of the sandy riverbed, which she proceed to scrub all over her hands. Even from where he was standing, he could see that the skin of her palms was turning an angry pink—she was rubbing them raw.
"Stop!" the young man heard himself shout the moment he realized what she was doing.
Startled, Noriko looked up as her guardian rushed to the bank, then skidded down it into the river—which, he discovered, was freezing. Ah well, his boots would dry.
"Stop," he said again, grabbing hold of the girl's wrists.
At this, the girl shocked him by trying to wrench away. "Iya!" No!
Izark froze, but he did not relinquish his hold. He understood that word—he'd heard it often enough in the first three or four days after he met her. It was her universal negative, something she screamed in fear and rejection—but this time, her tone carried another emotion entirely. It was almost…anguished.
She was sobbing now, still tugging weakly against his grip, foreign words spilling from her mouth as the tears spilled from her eyes. "[Don't touch them! They're all bloody—covered in blood—I have to—wash them—clean them—]"
But the young man could not understand her, and he could not allow her to continue this destructive endeavor. Ignoring her struggles, Izark proceeded to examine her hands—sure enough, she'd broken skin on the backs of both, causing places to well with tiny pricks of red where she had begun to bleed.
The trip back to camp wasn't difficult. After some mild protest, Noriko seemed to understand that she could either walk or be carried, but they were going back. Even so, the warrior kept his charge in front of him, one hand placed on her shoulder—just in case. At first he tried to lead her by the wrist, but that caused another outburst.
Back at the lean-to, the swordsman bandaged the girl's hands, saw to the horse and to dinner, and laid out their blankets. Noriko seemed to have thought better of her earlier behavior, and was extremely obedient for the rest of the evening.
Long after the young woman had rolled up in her blankets, Izark sat by the fire, pondering the events of the last few hours. Honestly, what had Noriko been thinking? He was pleased she had figured out that sand was good for cleaning—thank all the gods, he wouldn't have to teach her how to bath. But to scrub until her hands were bloody…
Images of Noriko on the night of the battle came to his mind. The way she'd stared at her hands and their coating of bandit's blood. How her soul had seemed to close for a while afterward, close and lock.
The memories flooded in then, memories of his own life that he'd tried hard to bury. There was a thud, then a scream of pain. The madwoman had landed across the room from where he, Izark, cringed. She was clutching her shoulder as she screamed, blood leaking through her fingers. His mother—she'd attacked him with a dagger, and he wanted to live.
But—that didn't mean he'd wanted to hurt her, too.
And then, more recently—
The sun was setting as the people of Calco went about the distasteful business of disposing of the bodies of the thieves he'd killed. No one had bothered making coffins for these men; just as the surviving criminals would share life in prison, so would their dead comrades share a grave.
If only, he thought, if only there wasn't a need for this grave.
"If I'd been recovered, they wouldn't have had to die," he said under his breath. But he hadn't been recovered, and so their foolish violence had cost them their lives.
Back in the present, the warrior's gaze fell over the sleeping girl, at the red marks under her eyes. The bandits' violence, and his illness, had cost something else, he realized. Her hands had been stained when she protected his life.
His life which was, if seers told truth, so much worse than worthless. And yet—
And yet …
He was grateful.
"Noriko, come here."
The young woman looked down at her guardian, a query in her eyes. After breaking camp in the morning, they'd ridden pillion down to the ford, where Izark dismounted and walked to the rivers edge.
Remembering that she still couldn't speak, the warrior made a beckoning gesture and waited as Noriko slid clumsily out of the saddle. The horse was trained to ground tie—it stood still, treating its dangling reins just as it would a secure tether when the girl walked away from it to join Izark by the water.
She stiffened when the young man took first one of her hands and then the other in order to unwrap the bandages, but chose not to repeat the scene from last evening. It wasn't the pain of her injuries that bothered her; it was just—her hands were so dirty. She didn't want him to touch them; she didn't want to touch them.
After a brief inspection of the healing, Izark crouched by the river, tugging the girl after him. She obeyed, albeit a little uncertainly, and knelt beside him on the gravelly bank.
She did let out a shocked squeak when the warrior took her right hand and plunged it into the water—it was cold! When she tried to pull it back however, Izark shot her a look that warned he would brook no argument.
Having settled that, the swordsman began to wash her hand. Using his own palms to accomplish the task, he worked his way over every bit of skin from the tip of each finger all the way up to her elbow, having a care for forming scabs.
Though puzzled and slightly embarrassed, Noriko found that she didn't really mind this treatment. Once she got used to it, the cold water was soothing to her chafed and swollen flesh. Then Izark took her left hand and performed the same ablutions, and the girl began to understand what he was doing.
Finished, the young man looked up to find her eyes sparkling with tears and still a little confusion. He sighed, and used a dripping index finger to tap his chest where the Thieves' Boss had run him through.
"You saved me," he told her, hoping he was making himself clear. Just to be sure, the warrior rested the fingertips of his right hand against the knuckles of her left. "Your actions, Noriko," he said, then brought his left hand to hover over his heart, "saved my life."
For one very long moment, Izark waited as the girl simply stared at him. She doesn't get it, he thought, defeated. It's just too complicated; not something you can say without words.
To his surprise, the girl suddenly nodded, then clasped the hand still touching her own. Taken aback, the warrior allowed Noriko to dip his hand in the river, and watched with growing wonder as she did for him exactly as he had just done for her, washing both arms from fingertips to elbow. Was it simple mimicry? Or—
She must have seen the searching in his eyes when she looked up after giving him back his left hand. She smiled at him—that brilliant smile he hadn't seen since the night before he took sick, the one that gave him such an unfamiliar sense of…well-being—and touched first his right hand, then the shoulder strap of his sword belt. Finally, as Izark's eyes widened in realization, she brought her hand to rest over her heart, just as he had done.
"[You too, Izark. You saved me, too.]"
Author's Note: I used a lot of poetic license in this fic; perhaps even a bit too much? Please review, especially if you have any comments or complaints.
Do you know, I've never actually gotten a 'flame'. Whether that is a comment on the manners of Kanata Kara fans or on my writing, I don't know. If anyone is interested in becoming my beta, please contact me.
Thanks for reading!