1I do not own InuYasha or any of the characters created by Rumiko Takahashi

Chapter 249

At Tameo's compound, Hisa slid the door open to her husband's office. The room was empty. There were papers scattered on the desk, Tameo's writing tools still out, and a jug and cups still sitting where their users had left them.

"Now where is that man?" she asked. Walking over to the table, she picked up the sake bottle and swirled it around.

Shinjiro followed her in. "Tameo was drinking already?"

"Well, they didn't drink much." Hisa put the bottle down. "I just refilled it yesterday, and there's barely any gone. They didn't even finish what was in the cups" She looked up at the young man, and shrugged. "But with all that noise going on, who could blame them for breaking it out? I wonder who was here with him - Kinjiro, I bet. Tameo almost never breaks out the sake this early when it's him and Susumu." She picked up the cups, walked to the door, and tossed the contents outside before putting them in her basket. "I'll wash these later. My youngest - well, sometimes he's in need of relaxing more than his brother. You know how serious he gets. He's going to grow old with a permanent frown."

"He needs to laugh more, my otousan says," Shinjiro said, nodding. "But you know how Chichi-ue is. Just the opposite of Kinjiro. So where do you think Tameo-sama went? Did he go out in the fields?"

"Probably not," Hisa said. "If I didn't need to ask him something, we'd just go back." She thought for a moment. "There's one other place to look. Let's head to the back."

Shinjiro nodded, moving out of the way so she could step through the doorway. With an easy motion, she closed the door behind her, and they began to walk to the back of the compound.

No children played. None of the farm workers that made the grounds a busy place were moving from the storehouses and animal pens in the back towards the fields. The only beings they passed were a chicken which ruffled its feathers at them and a sleeping cat.

But as they neared the back buildings, they caught drift of a man's voice.

"Is that Jun?" Shinjiro said, as they headed back.

"And the beautiful maidens turned into foxes and all ran off, kicking over the game board in their haste to get away from the old woodcutter." He paused and someone laughed.

"He must have looked really bad," replied another.

"And that sounds like Tameo-sama," Shinjiro noted.

"Jun's telling stories, it sounds like," Hisa replied. "Things are so much nicer here than they were this morning - even with everybody hiding back here. It's a shame we didn't make it here earlier. Jun's good at story telling. We're lucky we didn't miss it all."

"And then the women playing go were so startled, they jumped up and ran off, turning into foxes as they ran," the farm worker's voice said.

"The old woodcutter and the fox priest?" Shinjiro said.

"Sounds like it." Hisa shifted her basket to her other hand. "He puts a bit different twist on it, usually."

"What happened next?" said a young voice.

"Well, suddenly it was like he woke up from a dream," Jun said. "He looked around him, and even the clearing he had been sitting in was different than he remembered."

Hisa and Shinjiro reached the back alley and walked into the building they used as a kitchen during harvest times.

"Well, look who found us out," Tameo said, seeing his wife. "Welcome to our little refuge."

Jun was sitting near the cook's position, where Riki was tending the fire, shoving a small stick under a kettle holding hot water. She looked up as the two entered and nodded a greeting.

Isao sat not far away, looking at the farm worker with rapt eyes. He was bent over, resting one elbow on his leg and supporting his chin with his hand. Koichi, nursing a cup of tea, leaned against a wall. He idly rubbed his forehead with one hand as if his head hurt, and looked fatigued.

"Are you all right, Koichi?" Hisa asked. "Would you like me to make a pain potion?"

"No, no," the old farmhand said. "I just need some calm and quiet. Thank your son for me for taking over the guard duty."

"Well, well, look at our bridegroom," Jun said. "I'm surprised Chime-sama let you out."

"I think . . . " Shinjiro paused. "I think she was getting tired of me. I know there's been a lot going on in the village. For me, it's been a boring day."

"That's to make up for your exciting night," Jun said, leering just a little. "Karma."

Tameo and the other men laughed, Hisa smiled, and Riki just shook her head.

"Ah, wedding days do take their toll. I don't know who looks like they're having a rougher time of it, Koichi or Shinjiro," Tameo said. "So you've come to pass your boredom where the excitement's been?"

The bridegroom laughed. "You could say that."

"Sit down, sit down," the headman said, beckoning to the area next to him. Shinjiro went to take his seat.

"There's some fresh tea," Riki said. "Would you like a cup?"

"That would be lovely, Riki-chan," Hisa said, smiling appreciatively. "Has anybody talked with Toshiro about what's going on?"

"I did earlier," Tameo said. "But let's save that for later. Now is just to have a moment's peace."

"Peace is good," Koichi said, nodding.

While Riki got up to get more tea cups, Isao rested his hand on his chin. "But the story! What happened next?"

Jun scratched his head. "The story. Now where was I?"

"There was a big tree growing where he could have sworn there was only a sapling was when he sat down to watch the game," Hisa said.

Tameo reached over and patted his wife's hand. "Paid attention walking up, did you?"

Riki handed her a cup of tea, which she accepted graciously. "I always liked this one."

Shinjiro took his cup as well while Jun closed his eyes, and licked his lips. "The big tree where only the sapling had been before," he said, then open his eyes. "Exactly. The old woodcutter began to walk down the mountainside, but it was hard for him to recognize where he was going. The trail looked different, and all his landmarks had changed. When he got to where he thought his house was, there was only a heap of old rotted timbers. The garden that his wife was always working on was a weed-strewn field, and a young tree was growing in the middle of it. He went further down the road, and met an old villager that he didn't recognize.

"'Excuse me, Dono,' he asked politely. 'Do you know the house where the woodcutter lives, the one by the old willow tree? I was looking for it, but I can't find it. All I saw was an old ruin where I thought it was.'

"'That old place?' the old man said, scratching his head. 'Yes, a woodcutter used to live there. I used to play with his grandchildren when I was a boy. But his last grandson moved away a long time. I don't think anybody's lived there for fifty years.'"

"Fifty years?" Isao said. "The woodcutter had been gone that many years?"

"Longer, boy," Jun said. "That's when the last of his grandchildren had moved on. Must have been close to a hundred years. The reality of what had happened began to dawn on him. Having nowhere else to go, the woodcutter went back to the ruins and knelt down and cried. 'Why did this happen to me?'"

"Stupid man. He knew why," Koichi said. "Brought it on himself for being an ass. Ought to happen to Seiji."

Jun coughed into his hand, giving his co-worker an irritated look. Koichi, not looking at him, rubbed his forehead.

"Suddenly, after he had been there about an hour, he heard someone calling his name. Turning around, he saw the priest who had long ago told him that he needed to honor the gods instead of working all the time. He looked just the same as he did the first time he saw him."

"The same priest? He looked just the same?" Isao asked. He frowned, his brow knitting together.

"The very same. At first the woodcutter was frightened, and bowed down to the ground, but then, he grew angry and sat up.

"'You! 'said the wood cutter. ' It's your fault this happened to me! If you hadn't told me about honoring the gods, I would have lived out my life with my old wife. But now, they're all gone.' He stood up, and made a lunge for the priest, who blocked him with his staff. "

"'Woodcutter, when I told you to honor the gods, did I tell you to stop working? You brought this on yourself. You deserted your family long before you disappeared. And because you did it in the gods' name, they made sure you would learn your lesson.'

"'What?' the woodcutter said. 'I gave up everything for them.'

"I told you he was a stupid fool," Koichi said. "Too many of'em in the world who don't seem to know how to take care of business and their family." He got up and took his cup to Riki, who refilled it.

"I think," Hisa said, leaning close to her husband, "that Koichi's had too much Seiji-tea today."

Shinjiro, close enough to overhear, snorted.

Jun chose to ignore him, and went on with his story. "The gods didn't ask you to give up everything for them, now did they? They gave you a family to care for. They gave you work. All they asked is that you remembered them, who were looking out for your best interests. And what did you do? Throw away everything they had blessed you with!'"

"It's not smart to throw away what the gods give you, I guess," Isao said. "Even if it means responsibilities."

"Smart boy," Jun said. He took a sip from his own tea cup. "You already know this. Inari or any of the other kami won't have to come teach you a lesson like this poor man." He put down his cup. "Finally, it dawned on the old woodcutter what it was that he had done wrong. He fell back on his knees, and pulled on the mysterious priest's robes.

"'Forgive me!" the woodcutter said. 'I never meant to do it wrong. I'm just a stupid woodcutter. No one was ever around to teach me anything. Even my okaasan left me when I was small. How was I supposed to know better?'

"'Your good intentions and ignorance are noted,' the priest said. He looked up at the sky, turning his head like he was listening, shaking it a time or two, and finally, he sighed, then shrugged. 'If you say so, Dono.' The woodcutter quaked as he watched.

"Looking a bit reluctant, the priest clapped his hands twice and suddenly there was a blinding light. When the woodcutter opened his eyes, the rubble of the old house was gone, and it looked just the way he remembered it. The door opened, and his wife walked out. 'Drunk again, I suspect? Why didn't you come home last night?'

"Overjoyed, he ran to embrace the woman, much to her surprise. 'No wife, I'm very sober. I know just what I need to do.'

"And he spent the rest of his life being an excellent husband, giving the gods what was their due, but never forgetting to take care of his family, too."

"If only all men could learn that lesson so well," Tameo said, looking back towards the front of the compound, where the lockup was.

"Some people," Hisa said, "seem to need more teaching than one life can give."

"Alas," Jun said. "You may be right."

"So," Koichi said, looking at Shinjiro. "What type of husband are you going to be?"

"The right kind," the bridegroom said. "Otherwise, Haha-ue and Hisa-obasan would set that fox priest on me for sure. The first day after I acted up."

"Wise man," Tameo said, nodding. "Wise man."