The moment of weakness
They were very tired. Uesugi clan traveled all day long through the dusty, uninhabited wasteland with their baggage on their shoulders. And they even didn't have anything to eat anymore. At first, Haruie tried to hunt down something for a food but… There just weren't any edible animals. Or maybe they were hiding somewhere. Anyway, there weren't any berries or fruits either. Or any good mushrooms. Just nothing edible at all…
Kagetora's stomach grumbled in vain… He walked without a spirit but mostly because of his endless stubbornness… Strong (maybe, mentally) and brave (or just short-tempered) leader of the Uesugi army… Ha! He was so hungry… simply too hungry for his own good… Even Kagetora's head was lowered sadly, his hair dangling in his eyes. His white pearls' rosary was jingling slightly when he was moving.
Haruie was walking right past Kagetora. Naoe and Irobe were at the end of the procession. And… Where was Nagahide? No where in sight. I could assure you. But suddenly his voice shouted from the bushes to their left:
- Oi! Look what I've found!
So they stopped and looked at whatever Nagahide wanted then to see. That was… a very beautiful girl. They were looking at her in silence for some time. Then Kagetora smirked:
- Are we going to eat her or what?
- Eat her? – Nagahide cried angrily. – Are you finally out of your head, Bakatora-sama? Look! I've found her in the forest when I walked there to… you know…
- And? What use of her do you see? – Kagetora asked strictly with his eyebrows lifted high.
- Hmm. Maybe she can… entertain us, - said Nagahide thoughtfully.
- Entertain yourself as long as you want! – Kagetora turned up on his heel and began to walk again.
His men walked after him. But the girl never left: she was walking together with them. Finally Kagetora turned to her once more and took a good look: she had not only a good-looking face with the big, invitingly sparkling brown eyes and red-colored lips but even an expensive looking kimono of light pink silk embroidered with white and gently violet lotuses. Her hold in her left hand silver-colored fan with painted mountains and wild plum-trees on it. And even her hair-dress was exquisite – made into something that looked like a huge shining lotus-flower draped with a light golden veil… Such a creature… - Kagetora shake his head wanting to clear it off… unnecessary thoughts. Yes. That's right. Now he could remember his true goal. The food! Real, edible food! Nothing special. Just the big bowl of hot, steaming rice with the lumps of fresh red salmon and… Oh no!.. – He sighed tiredly and looked around once more. Then he saw the one that strange girl was walking with. Naoe. They even were laughing at something definitely stupid. Stupid Naoe… Kagetora gritted his teeth and turned away once more.
They traveled till the dusk has fallen down. Then from the top of the hill they finally saw some signs of the civilization: nothing more – just some poorly-built huts but the light was seeping from it and – what's more important – the smell of fresh-baked food!
- Yay! – Haruie shouted with amad look in his eyes.
- Hush! – Kagetora tried to stop him from the unnecessarily cruel acts. – We're goin to ask these people for the food. No fighting if there isn't any need. Understood?
So they just climbed down from the hill-top and walked to the little village trying to look friendly. Yeah, you bet. Then they entered the village, all of the peasant have already hidden somewhere (the attacks of samurais and ronins were nothing new to them). So Kagetora and the others simply took some food and left that place – no one wanted to sleep where they could be stabbed in the back anytime.
They decided to stay in the nearest forest: started a fire in the clearing and finally ate to their heart's content. And the girl was still with them. Sparkling in the light of the fire with all her jewels and shining eyes. She was sitting next to Naoe (and with his cloak on her shoulders – Kagetora noticed) and eating the rice balls he has given to her (out of his own share, of course). They were talking about something funny and finally Kagetora decided to interrupt:
- Where are you from, young lady? – He asked. – What has happened to you? We have found you in the wasteland where no one lives. How have you got there?
The girl looked up at him. Then she smiled sweetly.
- My lord, - She said. – You've saved me from a great danger. I was kidnapped and brought to this place so that I couldn't find my way home. I was going to die but… then you have found me, - The girl bowed her head low.
,, Like a wonderful, slim and precious flower", - Kagetora thought to himself.
But he didn't trust her at all. For some unknown reason she looked very suspicious to him. Very suspicious girl… So he had to watch her closely. He must.
Finally they went to sleep. For sure, they have left the guard – Haruie. The others lay down beside the fire. The girl was with Naoe. Under the same cloak. Kagetora couldn't sleep at all. He was still awake when others have fallen asleep – one by one. Even Haruie. Though he was supposed to stay awake… And then something has happened…
For a moment Kagetora thought that his eyes have gone wrong or what… Suddenly in the dim light of blazing fire he has seen something moving… Something strange… He tried to peer into that thing but all he could see was nearly imperceptible moves in the place where Naoe was sleeping. Is he?.. No, he wasn't. Then… Kagetora sat up and looked closely. Something – that looked like the glistening black snakes wriggled in the grass… Kagetora noticed that even the atmosphere has changed: it seemed like there wasn't enough oxygen in the air for breathing. He felt dizzy… He got up, swayed and stumbled to Naoe's side. Then… Kagetora saw what was moving beside Naoe and… nearly fainted…
There was… a skeleton of woman. Bones, so black like it was scorched in the flame. And it… was moving. The skeleton held both Naoe's hands in the one of its own, stroking Naoe's hair with the other hand. That terrible ,,woman'' leaned to kiss Naoe with her lipless face. Kagetora could see that Naoe was awake now – his eyes wide open but he didn't cry or do anything. He even didn't any strength to fight – so strong was the will of that ghost. And her… her hair was growing unusually fast – so now it was covering everything around her: Naoe's chest and arms, even his neck. The strands of that jet-black hair were wriggling and swaying. It looked like it was alive too…
The skeleton laughed soundlessly and leaned towards Naoe once more. This time… Kagetora wanted to attack with his power that monster but… he could hurt Naoe instead. Hurt Naoe… Ah! What could he do?.. He didn't know… so… Kagetora simply run to that creature, grabbed it and tried to tear it away from his vassal. Yeah, easy job, isn't it? But when he tried to strangle that scorched skeleton suddenly Kagetora was the one pushed to the ground. The ghost was strangling him now (and with more success evidently…). Kagetora even couldn't shout anymore… His vision was blackening slowly… But in that moment when he was going to faint – the darkness retreated. .. Kagetora breathed in slowly and looked up. Ha! Now he was in the middle of the battle! Naoe who apparently has regained some of his strength was fighting with a ghost – skeleton now. The monster was attacking him with some kind of dark power strong enough to strike Naoe down. Beside its hair that was about five or six meters in length now – was flying in the air and trying to make a loop around Naoe's neck… Kagetora had to do something… And right now.
The ghost has struck a blow for Naoe. When he hit the ground Kagetora stepped in front of Naoe (even for once he has to save Naoe instead of being always saved by him…).
- Be gone, lowlife, - He growled striking with all his power right to that black heart of it.
There was a huge shower of sparks, the air was smelling of scorched skin or maybe of some scorched bones… Suddenly Kagetora stumbled feeling all very weak… He fell over something warm and soft… Naoe!.. He tried to get up but he couldn't because the firm arms were holding him in place, right to the firm and warm chest. He… Feeling dizzy again… He… couldn't think at all… Then…
- You have saved my life… Kagetora – sama.
He just couldn't find the right words at this moment… So… instead of it… he found some words that were easy to say…
- …Baka! Let go of me!
He was released immediately but… somehow he… lonely… Was he really this lonely?.. No way in the Hell!
Kagetora got up and looke down at Naoe who was sprawled in the grass. He was angry now… But suddenly Kagetora noticed the red marks on Naoe's neck and hands and he felt a little sympathy for him involuntarily…
- Are you… all-right? – He asked silently.
- I think so,- Naoe took a look at his bruised arms then smiled slightly.- I could be dead…
- Yes. But you aren't,- Kagetora said coldly.- Let this be a little lesson for you because even one moment of weakness can ruin a man.
There wasn't anything more to say. So they have lain down beside the fire again and silently fell asleep.
Of course in the morning all noticed that the girl from yesterday was gone. There was a good lot of theories what could happened to her (Was she kidnapped again? Or was Naoe that bad at handling her?). but they couldn't find out the truth because Naoe and Kagetora remained silent.
- Hmm… - Nagahide mumbled audibly. – It's possible that I'll find another pretty girl somewhere… But this time let me keep her, okay?
No one objected to this.