Waking Up V: Surrendering the Soul

by tbossjenn

"My lady, watch out! She's a traitor!" Gonza shouted. San charged him, sword drawn and screaming a battle cry. Eboshi had to pay, and this pig was not going to stand in her way. "Give it up, wolf," the warrior sneered at her. "You can't beat me!"

"But I already have, remember?" San growled. She ducked and jabbed him in the stomach with the butt of her dagger. The large man fell over with a groan. In the old days, she would have just killed him without a second thought. She truly had gone soft.

Lord Kei, the man from Taira who had joined Eboshi in her war, now put himself in her way. "I won't let you kill her, pretty spirit," he said with a smile. "Not now."

San screamed in rage. "I'm not a spirit - I'm a wolf! I'll kill you if I have to!" This man was a much better warrior than Gonza, and San did not want to wear herself out. Killing Eboshi would be easy, but San wanted the lady to see her as she truly was: a wolf of Moro's tribe - a force to be feared. Impatient, San merely leaped above Kei's head and landed softly behind him. She charged the startled Eboshi and knocked her to the ground, pressing the blade against her throat.

"Stay back, all of you!" Eboshi commanded, her eyes locked onto San's. To the wolf girl she said, "Now just what do you think you're doing?"

"You killed my mother, and now you've sent my lifemate to die! I should have done this a long time ago!"

The lady's eyes were calm and steady. "Go ahead, but you should know that he's not doing it for me."

San froze with a choked sob, then slowly backed away from Eboshi. Laughing, Gonza rushed forward with his sword, but the lady said, "No! Don't touch her! Leave us."

"But, my lady, she tried to ..."

"I said leave us, Gonza. You too, Kei. I'll speak with you later."

San was trembling. "Oh, god, I let him leave without telling him," she said, sinking to floor. "And now ..."

Eboshi placed her hand on the girl's shoulder. "Ashitaka is a natural diplomat; look at all he has done for us. That's why I sent him. He's also a great warrior, which is why I'm sure he'll be all right."

San stiffened and brushed the lady's hand away. "He had better be."

* * *

"Stay down Yakul!" Ashitaka whispered, placing a cautious hand on the elk. The two of them were lying in a ditch close to the road, where a large company of horsemen were riding past. I can't believe Lord Osano's samurai have already come this far, he thought. It would only be a matter of days before they reached Iron Town and lay siege to it. Lady Eboshi was also on her way with her newly acquired army, but he feared that she wouldn't get there in time.

Ashitaka had been travelling for days by the main roads, and he hadn't expected to see the soldiers so soon. Now he and Yakul would have to find a way around, which would surely slow them down. The lady had asked them to move quickly and unseen, and had also warned that it was foolish to take Yakul. The samurai would recognize a man riding a red elk as being one of hers. Ashitaka had argued that Yakul was faster and more sure-footed than any horse, but now he realized that Eboshi had been right. With a horse he might have been able to pass himself off as an ordinary traveller. So far he had only managed to put his friend in danger.

He waited until the samurai had ridden out of sight before getting up. "Well done, my friend. Let's hope we won't be seeing anymore of them for awhile." Ashitaka jumped onto the elk's back and the pair rode into the dense woods that bordered the road. This forest, however, did not have the beauty of the one back home. Most of the trees were dead, and the trunks stood like tall skeletons. Rainfall had turned the ground into soft mud, and soon Ashitaka and Yakul were dirty and shivering. They moved slowly, for Ashitaka was afraid that the elk might trip and hurt himself. There was no sound except for Yakul's gentle breathing, and Ashitaka felt more exposed in this place than he did out on the road. No good can come from this, he thought.

Yakul suddenly tensed and raised his head, nostrils flaring.

"What is it?" Ashitaka asked softly. "Do you hear something?" He sat up and listened, but there was only silence. Yakul kept moving, but his body remained tense and his ears were pricked. Ashitaka fought back the urge to tell the elk to run. Doing so might cause Yakul to go lame or result in the two of them getting shot by unseen riflemen or archers.

"Don't move," a cold voice ordered. A half a dozen samurai emerged from the trees; their arrows trained on them. "Who are you?"

"My name is Ashitaka."

"You're a spy for the Lady Eboshi of Iron Town. She has been seen with a young man on a red elk - you."

""I have since left Iron Town," Ashitaka replied. "I want to settle elsewhere."

"Yeah, right. You're coming with us."

Ashitaka couldn't get away from them, at least not now. "All right."

He soon found himself travelling for miles in the wrong direction, he didn't like to think about how quickly he'd have to move to recover that lost time. Assuming he'd be able to escape. They bound him to Yakul, and the elk obviously didn't like being pulled along by two horsemen. Ashitaka kept quiet and looked straight ahead. A wrong word or move would get them killed. They finally stopped and set up camp for the night, and he was dragged from the saddle and led to the commander's tent.

"Sir, this is the man we captured in the woods."

The man looked up from the papers on his desk and smiled. "Ah yes, you are the famous stranger who rides the elk! You know, many think you are a demon, like that Princess Mononoke."

"As you can see, I'm not a demon," Ashitaka replied. "I'm just a simple peasant in a land that is new to me. I'm not surprised that people would think I'm strange."

"Yet you are surprised when we say you are a spy for Eboshi. Do you actually expect me to believe you just happened to leave Iron Town right before Eboshi went to war again with Lord Osano?"

"Believe what you want."

"You will tell me what you're doing and where you're going!" the commander said, walking up to Ashitaka. "Why are you going south? To see the emperor? Why would you do this, seeing how he is also at war with Lady Eboshi?"

"I am not on a mission. I am merely a traveller."

"Insolent dog!" The commander punched him across the eye, and then in the ribs. Ashitaka staggered but did not lose his balance; his hands remained securely tied behind his back. "Tell me what I want to know!"

"I can tell you nothing." Ashitaka gasped as the commander gave him a swift kick to the gut. This time he fell to the floor gasping for breath.

"Commander, here are his belongings. We took his weapons away when we first caught him." A samurai came forward with Ashitaka's pouch and rice bag, and the commander emptied the contents of the pouch onto his desk. He looked at the bowl and then absently threw it into the corner where it shattered. Ashitaka winced - it was one of the few things he had brought with him from home. After tossing Ashitaka's extra shirt aside and pocketing the few gold nuggets, he turned his attention to the now-empty rice bag. No doubt some samurai were now stuffing themselves with Ashitaka's food. The commander looked inside the bag and sighed.

"Did you search him?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, I haven't found any letters but I'm still sure he was sent by Eboshi. Go tie him up outside, I'll deal with him in the morning. Kill the elk - it'll make a good supper."

Fear surged through Ashitaka. He could accept whatever happened to himself, but he couldn't let anything happen to Yakul. But how would he get himself untied? The soldiers dragged him out and threw him down beside a fire, and Ashitaka groaned sagged to the ground. Surprisingly enough, they left him alone.

Cautiously, Ashitaka sat up and looked around. The soldiers were all clustered around other campfires that lay nearby, and no one had bothered to stay and keep watch over him. He lay on the ground and wriggled around for a bit until the crystal dagger had come loose from his neck. Picking the dagger up with his fingers, he was able to saw through the ropes on his wrists. Thank you, my love, he thought.

He crept slowly along the ground, then grabbed a soldier that was emerging from one of the tents. Even without the demon power, Ashitaka was strong enough to break the man's neck. Pulling the body back into the tent, he put on the armor and weapons and made his way towards where he thought Yakul would be.

A fat samurai staggered towards him, grinning from ear to ear. "Where you been? Havin' a great time o'er there ...so great!" he slurred, leaning against Ashitaka.

"I think you've had a little too much to drink," the young man laughed. "Why don't you sleep it off?"

"You're maybe right. Maybe ..." The samurai passed out. Ashitaka quickly looked around, but didn't see anyone else close by. He lowered the man to the ground and took his money, dagger, and arrows.

"Thank you, friend," Ashitaka whispered, patting the samurai on the head.

He soon found Yakul; the elk was being held by three men, and another was heading towards him with a knife.

"Hurry up, will you?"

"Yeah, I'm hungry!"

Ashitaka walked quickly up behind the man with the knife and shoved his sword into his back. He pulled the sword out, and the dead man fell to the ground with a heavy *thud*. Stepping back, Ashitaka quickly knotched an arrow and it struck another man in the throat. The other two came running towards him, screaming. Damn, I'd better move fast, Ashitaka thought grimly. The first didn't have a sword, and he quickly took care of him in one upward stroke. The other tried to get past him in order to knife him in the back, but Ashitaka blocked his attacks and quickly finished him off.

He ran to Yakul, but the frightened elk backed away from him. "Easy, my friend, it's me! Come on, we have to get out of here!"

The camp had been alerted and soldiers ran for their weapons in a drunken haze. Ashitaka and Yakul went into the commander's tent, and Ashitaka reached down and picked his rice bag off the desk. "I'll be taking this back now," he said to the surprised commander, who recoiled from the fierce warrior.

The pair disappeared into the darkness, and the stunned man whispered, "He is a demon."

* * *

From then on, Ashitaka stayed off the main roads and managed to find old paths that were relatively clear. The samurai armor would have given him good cover, but riding a red elk would still have made him stand out. He had escaped Osano's soldiers rather easily, and he believed it was largely due to the samurai's drinking habits and Yakul's speed. Some horsemen had ridden after them, but the elk was better at finding his way in the dark than horses.

He also owed his freedom to San, for she had given him the dagger. Ashitaka summoned the image of her face in his mind: white skin, red tattoos, clear blue eyes, soft brown hair. Beautiful. For the first time since the escape his spirits began to lift. He was on a peaceful mission, and killing those samurai had depressed him. The Emishi did not believe in uneccessary killing, though at the time it had seemed necessary. Now Ashitaka wasn't so sure. He prayed for their souls and asked them for forgiveness. He hoped that would be enough.

Ashitaka and Yakul were nearing the imperial city of Yoshino, and Ashitaka had put his own travelling clothes back on. For some reason he found it important that he present himself as an Emishi prince even though he knew he couldn't tell the emperor where he was from. The walls of the city loomed above him, and it was even larger than Iron Town. He patted Yakul affectionately on the neck; more to reassure himself than the elk. He knew Yakul would follow him into hell without a single worry. They steadily approached the guards at the gate.

"State your business here, stranger."

"I've been sent by Lord Kei of Taira. I have a message for the emperor that I'm to deliver personally." Ashitaka showed them a medallion that bore Kei's seal. He was led to the emperor by an armed escort and found himself confronted by an elderly man in bright robes.

"Take off the mask. You will not cover your face in my presence." Ashitaka did as he was told, and the emperor snorted. "You're just a boy. What are you doing here?"

"My lord, I have a message for you from Kei of Taira," Ashitaka answered, bowing his head slightly and making sure not to look directly at the emperor. He unslung the empty rice bag from his shoulder and reached inside. The letter, along with the medallion, had been sewn into the lining of the bag. He stepped forward and handed the letter to the emperor.

After a few minutes, the old man remarked, "It says here that Kei has married the Lady Eboshi and is protesting the invasion upon his lands in Iron Town. I don't understand this. When was he married? Why didn't he notify me?"

"The marriage was very recent, my lord. It happened shortly before Kei got word of an attack on his new property." This was partially true - the hastily arranged wedding took place a day or two after Ashitaka left.

The emperor sighed. "I wish I had known of this before I gave that army to Lord Osano," he said regretfully. "An attack upon a woman is one thing, but I cannot afford to make an enemy of Lord Kei."

"Lord Kei does not hold any ill will against you, your majesty. He simply requests that he be allowed to defend his lands without fear of retribution."

The emperor was reading the rest of the message. "Hmmm ... he also says that there is no magical weapon in Iron Town. That means Osano lied to me."

"The Nightwalker became a god of death when its head was cut off. That's what destroyed Osano's army. The god regained its head shortly before it was killed by the sun. Now there is nothing left of its power."

"Then Osano did deceive me - and he caused me to go against one of my closest allies. You may not realize this, my boy, but I do not hold absolute power over this island. I am war with those who do - the Ashikaga shoguns, and I need to hold onto every friend I have. Especially Lord Kei of Taira." The emperor quickly scribbled something on a piece of paper and sealed it. "Take this back to him, and tell him that he has nothing to fear from me if he defeats my army."

"Thank you, my lord." Ashitaka bowed and prepared to leave.

"Where do you think you're going?!" the emperor said harshly. "I didn't dismiss you." He walked up to Ashitaka and examined him. "I have never seen anyone dressed like you before; and I was told you came here riding a large red elk. Who are you? Where are you from?"

"My name is Ashitaka, and I come from the east."

"That's no answer for an emperor, boy. Where in the east?"

"I can't tell you that."

"You refuse to tell your emperor!?"

"I will not put my village in danger, my lord."

"No, I can tell you won't. Even if I bothered to torture you, you still wouldn't tell me. You know, I have heard stories of tribes in the north and the east that live beyond my rule - beyond even the shoguns' rule. It was thought they were destroyed long ago, but they still exist." He glanced at Ashitaka, but the young man's face betrayed nothing. "Ah, no matter. I have more important things to worry about than a few small barbarian tribes. Go now, Ashitaka. Go and deliver your message."

* * *

San watched as Eboshi barked out orders to her men. They had been getting close to Iron Town when they suddenly found themselves blocked by Osano's samurai. Though Eboshi was still calm, San could tell that she was definitely not expecting battle so soon. The lady turned and went into her tent; San followed. Looking at some maps on her desk, Eboshi looked up and asked, " San, what can I do for you?"

"I want to know what's going on. You were planning to get back before Osano's army got here, weren't you?"

Eboshi looked tired. "Yes, but he got his men here more quickly than I expected. Somehow he must have found out that I was onto him."

"What do you plan to do?"

"The only thing I can: fight through them all until we reach the town and hope that he won't have fresh troops waiting for us when we get there."

San began to pace. "That's all you can say? What if there are more men? What if you can't even get through at all?" She was furious - she had known the woman was full of empty promises.

Eboshi jumped up. "Look, what do you want from me? You should know by now that there are no gurantees in life, not for anything. I can't promise that Ashitaka will come back and I can't promise you that your forest will be safe. I can't ..." She sighed and sat back down. "I can't even promise my people that they will have homes when this is over."

"Is that why you married that man?" San asked. "For your people?" She had been curious about this.

"Yes. I needed his name on the message I gave Ashitaka. Unfortunately, some problems can only be solved through marriage."

"Do you love him?"

"I suppose so - as much as I could ever love any man," Eboshi replied. "When I was young, I refused to get married just to please my father. I have never allowed myself to be forced into anything, but Kei and I have gotten to know each other over the years and he is a good man. He respects me, though he can be infuriating sometimes. The idea of belonging to a man for the rest of my life holds no more appeal to me now than it did before, but this time it was my choice."

"You gave up your freedom for your people."

"Not just for them. Like I said, San, I want to set things right."

* * *

Ashitaka sat and nibbled on his rice as the rain continued to beat down on him. It had been raining steadily all day. He figured they were almost halfway back, and they were making good time compared to their trip south. This was because he made very few stops along the way, stopping only when Yakul needed to rest. Yakul came up and prodded him with his nose, and Ashitaka chuckled and fed the elk some rice. "You don't mind this rain, do you my friend?" He was grateful he had Yakul with him; he considered the elk to be his greatest and most loyal friend in the world.

Ashitaka found it important to get back to Eboshi as soon as he could. He knew she would encounter the samurai on her way to Iron Town, and he feared she might delay battle until he returned. But more than that, he wanted to get back to San. Using her crystal dagger had brought back intense memories of her - memories he had tried to bury when she left him. He kept the image of her face in his mind always, and every other thought he had was of her. Perhaps he was being foolish, for when they parted she had still mistrusted him. He knew that when he got back she might very well still hate him. Ashitaka didn't care - he only wanted to be near her again. To simply be near her would be better than having nothing of her at all.

"You're rested? Good, then let's get going." He put the uneaten rice back in his bag and jumped onto Yakul's back. Just a few days more, and he would be with her. Ashitaka prayed he would run into no more samurai.

* * *

San screamed a vicious battle cry as she launched herself at the samurai. The trembling warrior took a few steps back, and San caught the strong scent of urine. She loved this. She was finally the wolf again - the wolf that made her prey shiver and smell of fear. Like this man. He absolutely reeked of fear. But he was clumsy, and this made the hunt boring. San decided to be merciful (unusual for a wolf, and this further supported her reasoning that she had gone soft) by giving him a quick death.

She looked around for a challenge. Soldiers were fighting all around her, bolstered by her fierce courage. San was proud of this, for she knew she was protecting her forest by giving Eboshi's men her strength. Another samurai came running towards her now, shouting his own gutteral battle cry. This one had some real moves, and San had to use all her strength to counter his attacks.

"Give it up, spirit. You're human, and you're going to bleed like one."

San growled, and the samurai paused for a second. Plenty of time. Afterwards, she took a moment to sniff his body, and was pleased to find that he had certainly been afraid when he died. The fear was what made this all worth it, whether the prey was animal or human.

She could hear Lady Eboshi shouting now; she was ordering her people to fall back. The riflemen had finally arrived. San was disgusted by guns - they were the weapons of cowards. The frightened samurai she had killed - the one who had urinated - he had died with more honor than Eboshi's riflemen would ever have.

San retreated behind Eboshi's line, and the lady nodded to her. It was funny - Eboshi had spared her and even acted as her friend even though San had nearly killed her. San knew that she would have killed Eboshi if the lady hadn't known exactly what to say to dissuade her. San was still angry with her for sending Ashitaka away, and was even more angry at these samurai for threatening his life. Most of all, she was angry with Ashitaka for leaving. What had he been thinking? Of me, he was thinking of me ... She couldn't bury this thought no matter how much she tried because she knew it was true. And for the first time she could remember since losing her mother, she was afraid. This kind of fear, though, was terrible. San just wanted Ashitaka back as soon as possible so she could wring his neck for making her worry so much. She just wanted him back.

On the way back to camp, San was assured by Eboshi that they were successfully pushing Osano's army back. At the moment, all San wanted was to eat and get some rest. Standing in line for rice, she noticed the men looking strangely at her, but she didn't care. She was tired of behaving like a goddess. San turned her head as she heard the guards yelling at someone.

"Stop! Identify yourself!"

"It's Ashitaka," a tired voice said. "Get Lady Eboshi, she'll tell you."

San's heart stopped. There he was, standing beside Yakul and looking completely exhausted. His clothes were muddy and torn, and he was thinner than she remembered. Ignoring the protests of the guards, San ran to Ashitaka and flung herself into his arms. "I was afraid I'd never see you again!"

Trembling, Ashitaka put his arms around her waist and whispered, "San, is it you? What ... what is this?" He sounded unsure.

"It's all right, I'm here now," she replied softly, pressing her face into his chest. That scent! How she had missed it. "I love you, Ashitaka. Do you understand? I love you." His arms slowly crept from her waist to her shoulders and he drew her close, but still said nothing. "I thought I had lost you forever," she whispered. "I wanted to die."

He let out a choked sob. "Now you know how I felt, love."

San looked up into his eyes, and was shocked by how dull and lifeless they were. She could see, though, that they were slowly regaining their warmth. It was as if Ashitaka was waking up from some terrible dream. Suddenly, he collapsed against her and she struggled to hold him up. "Ashitaka!"

"I'm very tired, San. Please, help me to bed. Please ..."

"All right," she said soothingly. San helped him over to her tent and laid him down on the bearskins. "You are so dirty, my love. What happened to you?"

Ashitaka was barely awake, but his gaze remained fixed on her. "San ... did you really mean it? You've forgiven me, even after what I did?"

"Hush, we'll talk about it later when you're feeling better. Right now, I think you should get cleaned up."

"Could you help me?"

San could have sworn she saw a wicked gleam in his eye. "Of course." After heating some water, she peeled off his mud-encrusted clothes. Propping him up on her lap, she began to scub off the dirt with a washcloth.

Ashitaka had been dozing, but he awoke with a hiss as the hot water trickled over his skin.

"Am I hurting you?"

He sighed in contentment. "No, it feels good. It's been so long since I've been anything but cold."

They said nothing to each other for awhile; they were reveling in the feel of each other's touch and in simply being with each other again. The girl was relieved to see that the smooth skin underneath was largely undamaged, though she frowned at the bruises she saw. She traced a finger along his chest, realizing she had forgotten how beautiful he was. Ashitaka leaned his head against her as she bathed him.

"You'll get my clothes wet, Ashitaka," she teased gently.

"I wouldn't mind if you had to take them off," he said with a grin. San bent down and they kissed ...

"Ashitaka! The Lady Eboshi wants to speak with you!" Gonza shouted from outside their tent.

San snarled, letting Ashitaka's head thump to the ground.

"Ow!"

"Sorry, love, sorry!" she cooed, rubbing his cheek. "Leave us alone!" San yelled to Gonza. "He's mine now!"

"San, there's a letter in that bag. Give it to him and he'll go away."

She stormed outside and thrust the emperor's message into Gonza's hand. "Here! This is for Eboshi. Now go away!" San hurried back into the tent, only to find Ashitaka asleep. She smiled and shook her head - there was no use in trying to wake him now. He would be out for hours. "To think you put yourself through all that for a piece of paper," she remarked, lightly caressing his bruised eye. "I don't think I'll ever understand humans. Except maybe you, my Ashitaka."

* * *

Ashitaka woke sometime later to find San snuggled up against him. Her face was exactly as he pictured it, except the blue eyes were closed at the moment. Though he was slowly beginning to remember the previous day, he half expected to wake up and find himself laying facedown in a ditch somewhere. Ashitaka touched San's cheek and she sighed in her sleep, murmuring something he couldn't quite hear. He kissed her, and she stirred in surprise before kissing him back.

"Good morning," she whispered.

"You're real."

"Yes, and so are you."

"Last night, you did say -"

San leaned up on one arm. "I said I love you, and that was real too."

He could hardly believe it. "I love you, San." Tears began to trickle down his cheeks, but he made no effort to stop them.

"My warrior, how tough he is!" San teased. She leaned forward and kissed away his tears. "Is that better?"

"No, this is," he replied, pressing her gently into the furs and drawing her into a deep kiss.

"Mmmm, I missed that." She gasped softly as his kisses found their way down her throat. "I missed you, Ashitaka."

"I came back for you, San," he breathed into her ear. "I only wanted to get back to you, even if you still hated me."

"Really?" So much happiness in that single word.

"Yes." Ashitaka paused for a moment and pulled away from her. "But how can you forgive me?"

San smiled and drew him back down to her. Her arms wound around him and he nestled his head into the hollow of her neck. She finally said, "I love you too much not to."

* * *

Lady Eboshi greeted Ashitaka with a warm smile. How well he looks! she thought. But then that was to be expected when one was reunited with their lost love. "I'm so glad you were able to return to us with barely a scratch on you," she said to him. "Though I understand you did have some difficulty."

"Yes, I ran into a group of samurai, but I managed to escape thanks to San." The young man smiled at the girl, who squeezed his hand in return. Eboshi had keep herself from rolling her eyes. Young lovers were hard to tolerate; they were always mooning about with dreamy expressions on their faces. She hoped the couple wouldn't be too distracted from the task at hand.

"You did very well, Ashitaka," Lord Kei said. "This letter you brought ensures that the emperor won't have our heads if we manage to take back the town. Now the problem lies in getting there."

Eboshi frowned. "Yes. As you probably know, Osano has already cut us off from Iron Town."

"How did he find out?" Ashitaka asked.

"He may have sent scouts on ahead, or maybe Jiko double crossed us," the lady said. "Who knows? What matters is what's happening now. We've slowly been pushing our way closer, and my scouts tell me that Toki and the others have been holding their own. Still, I'm not sure if we can make it before the town falls. Not at the rate we've been going." Eboshi ran her hand through her hair in frustration. All this work and sacrifice - she couldn't let it all be for nothing.

San spoke up suddenly. "We'll leave."

"What?" Eboshi was confused.

"We'll pack up and leave, then double back through the forbidden forest," the girl explained.

"Well, I'm impressed," Kei said, grinning at Eboshi. "What do you think, darling?"

"It would take longer - we'd have to move quickly," the lady said thoughtfully. "But we would probably have a better chance going around the samurai then through them." To San she said, "Are you sure you want an army going through your forest? Wouldn't we disturb things quite a bit?"

"If that's what it takes to save it," San answered.

Eboshi shook her head in wonder. This wolf girl was certainly full of surprises. "All right, then. I agree with San. We'll have to hurry - order everyone to break camp immediately. I want to be out of here as soon as possible."

She went over to her desk and began to organize her papers. When she looked up, she saw that everyone had left but Kei. "What is it?" she asked softly.

"Why did I let you drag me into this mess, Eboshi?" he asked.

"I had thought the emperor's message would make you feel better."

"It's nice to know I won't be executed for treason. But why did I let you talk me into this to begin with?"

"Because you love me, you always have. I could always see it, even though you tried to hide it."

"And you've turned it against me," Kei said bitterly.

"Please don't think of it like that," she said gently. "You want to know what you're getting in return? I'll come with you and be the lady of Taira. I'll be your wife and I'll give you daughters and sons." She smiled. "My dowry's not that bad, either."

"You want Iron Town so badly that you would give it up and be with me?"

"Come now, you must have known I would have married you eventually. You're the only person in the world who has ever won an argument with me."

Kei smiled and took her hand in his. "Thank you, wife."

* * *

"I've been thinking," San said. "It's time we talk and get everything out in the open. No more secrets." The two of them were on the hillside overlooking the camp.

Ashitaka lay on his back with his head in her lap. "All right."

"I'll live with you in the hut and be nice to the people in Iron Town. I especially want to learn how to use chopsticks again."

He chuckled. "I thought you hated them."

"I think it's a very cute human habit, even if it's pretty silly. Now, here's the rest of it. I won't try to become more human. I like myself as I am. I'll go hunting with my brothers and kill as a wolf. I will always belong to Moro's tribe. I like Toki and Korouku, but I will probably never be very close to other humans."

Ashitaka nodded. "All right, my turn. I promise to stop trying to make you into a "proper" girl, whatever that is."

She smacked him playfully. "I'm not proper?"

"You know what I mean. You're perfect just as you are, and I was a fool for not realizing it sooner."

"I can't disagree with you there."

"Anyway, I couldn't bear to lose you again. Once was bad enough."

He had stopped speaking, and San said, "That's not everything, Ashitaka, and you know it. I told you what I want - to be with you and stay the way I am. Tell me what you want."

Ashitaka reached up and brushed her cheek. "Besides you? I want a family. I want to have the same feeling of home that I had in my village."

"And you think you might not be able to have those things with me," she said sadly.

He sat up and looked into her eyes. "I don't think that at all. You're simply different, and that's what I love most about you. You'll always be home to me. By the way, I think this belongs to you." Ashitaka took off the crystal dagger and gave it back to her. She kissed him and they held each other close.

"HEY! What are you two doing up here!?" Gonza huffed, towering over them.

Ashitaka shaded his eyes. "Where did you come from?"

"The lady ordered everyone to pack up and move out!" the captain shouted.

"We've already packed our things; we were just waiting for everyone else," Ashitaka answered.

"Why don't you get down there and help us, then?" Gonza demanded.

"Why don't you leave?" San said. "We've both helped you people enough for right now. Besides, Ashitaka's still recovering from his dangerous journey."

"Yes, and she's nursing me back to health," Ashitaka added with a grin.

Gonza just looked at them, then stomped away grumbling something about insolent traitors.

"He sure knows how to show up at the wrong time," San remarked.

"And you did such a good job of sending him away."

"I'm glad we were able to get away from them for awhile. I miss our hut; it's so nice and private there, and it's close to the forest. I'm getting sick of being around these humans all the time."

"I know," he said, rubbing her shoulders. "Thank you for helping Eboshi. I don't think she could have done all this without you."

"I'm only responsible for the peasants. Eboshi actually went and married that lord to get his army."

"That was something, all right. But I'm sure there's more to their marriage than that."

"I guess so."

They sat in silence for awhile, then San burst out: "Ashitaka, will you marry me?"

He looked at her in stunned surprise, then laughed softly. "Of course I will, my love," he said, gathering her into his arms. "Of course I will."

* * *

Eboshi's army was a day's journey from Iron Town when they received word that the town had fallen to Osano. The lady shut herself away in her tent, refusing to see anyone. She needed time to think. There was still hope - she knew this. Let Osano think he has beaten her. Let him get as cocky as he pleased. Eboshi would soon get her chance to strike him down.

A voice called to her from outside. "Eboshi? Come on now, I know you're not in there crying yourself to sleep. Let me in. Tell me what imaginative scheme you've conjured."

Eboshi smiled. "Come in, I knew I couldn't keep you out for long." Her husband entered, and though he appeared to be in good spirits, she could tell that he was actually in a gravely serious frame of mind. It was times like this that he put on his best face, and she admired him for that.

"What did I miss?"

"Nothing. I was just trying to think of the best way to approach the town. Osano will know we are here, and he'll be ready for us."

"You're tired, you should rest. Let me do some of the thinking for awhile."

"No, you don't know the area as well as I do. You couldn't possibly plan an attack as well as I can."

"You'd be surprised. Don't turn your poor husband away."

Eboshi leaned back against him. "I'm worried about my girls, Kei," she said. "Even though they worked in the brothels, no woman wants or deserves to be raped. I'm afraid for them."

"I know. But we'll come up with a brilliant strategy, save the day, and have a huge festival to celebrate. And then you can show me my iron."

Eboshi turned around furiously to face him, and he grinned mischievously back at her. She laughed. "Kei?"

"Hmmmm?"

"I think I might like being married to you."

He bent down and kissed her head. "Thank you. I don't think being married to you will be so bad, either."

A voice called to her from outside. "My lady! A messenger from Lord Osano!"

Eboshi and Kei went outside where a cocky looking young man was waiting for them.

"Lady Eboshi, this is an honor," he said in a mocking tone. "My Lord Osano says you have been a worthy opponent, but he must sadly end this little fight. Turn back now and you won't be annihilated."

Eboshi smiled. "Just who do you think you are, coming into my camp and speaking to me like that?"

"I am Takashi, Osano's nephew."

"I can see your uncle never bothered to instruct you in the ways of diplomacy."

Takashi snorted. "You wouldn't dare do anything to me."

"Maybe she wouldn't, but I think I would," Kei said, stepping forward. His hand rested on his sword.

"Who are you?"

"Lord Kei of Taira and Iron Town. The town and its lands belong to me now, by right of marriage. Or haven't you heard?"

The young man suddenly looked nervous. "Osano demands your surrender."

Kei laughed. "Look at this army! It's mine, and it's one of the finest on this island. Osano thinks he can hide behind the emperor? I am among the emperor's closest allies. His blessing may be with your uncle, but he won't lay a hand on me or my wife if we happen to win this war."

"Osano has a great army too, he will beat you!"

"Do you think these men are afraid of Osano?" Kei demanded, raising his voice. The nearby soldiers turned their heads sharply, and whispering began to circulate among the crowd. "Do you think they will back down from a challenge?" Shouts began to echo in the cold air.

Eboshi called, "San, would you come over here please?" The girl approached with the white wolves. Her mask was pulled firmly down in place, and a wicked grin was visible.

"This is the Princess Mononoke," Eboshi said. "She is the princess of the beast gods in this forest, and they are not happy with your uncle. The gods are with us, and we are not afraid. Thank you for delivering your message, Takashi. San, he's all yours."

Trembling, Takashi backed away as the wolf girl advanced. His terrified screams rang out as Eboshi and Kei walked back to their tent. "That was a mean trick, Eboshi," Kei remarked. "San will scare that poor boy to death."

"He deserves it. Nobody talks to me like that. Besides, he'll go back to Osano with some interesting stories to tell."

"Maybe he'll even surrender."

"Don't count on it."

"Eboshi!" The pair turned and saw San running towards them. "The pig says that Osano plans an attack for early morning. Sending his nephew was a trick."

Kei looked at his wife. "It looks like this will end at last."

"Yes, but we're ready."

* * *

The cheers of the army swelled as San rode among them upon the white wolf. She wore her own dress with white fur tunic and the wolf headdress. There was no need for theatrics now, for though the beautiful kimono had made her noticed, it was her fierce skill in battle that had made her a true goddess to these men. Eboshi had told her that an army would follow a goddess into hell, and San finally realized that she was right. However, this was also proof that humans could believe in something greater and more powerful than themselves, and San marvelled at this.

Eboshi bowed to her and said, "Princess Mononoke, thank you for your presence on this battlefield. Please give us your strength."

"I will help as much as I can. I thank you for trying to save my forest."

"Look! It's Osano's army!"

The women turned and saw them: men appearing from the thickness of the trees.

"Riflemen forward!" Eboshi ordered. Her voice was tense, but steady. San drew her dagger, then quickly looked around for Ashitaka. He returned her anxious gaze with a warm smile. Yakul was not there - Ashitaka had preferred to keep his friend out of danger. She smiled back and then said a quick prayer to the Forest Spirit. Please, great spirit, don't let this be the end for us ...

The armies faced each other, then Osano's bowmen stepped forward. A hail of arrows rained down, and men cried out.

"Fire!" Clouds of smoke burst out as the rifles fired. This time the cries came from the other side; louder because samurai armor gave little protection against solid iron bullets. More arrows, more riflefire. More screams. On and on and on.

San felt her brother grow wary and impatient. "How long will this go on, San? At this rate we'll be sitting here all day."

"I don't know. Just be ready for anything." Then the first wave of Osano's forces surged foward.

Eboshi glanced at San. "Stay where you are. We still have plenty of ammunition." The samurai fell in numbers, and San couldn't help but feel sorry for them. These men were probably paid recruits like Eboshi's own soldiers, and no warrior should have to die this way. It was so cowardly. "First wave, attack!" the lady yelled. The riflemen quickly stood aside as the footsoldiers advanced. These were the villagers, the less experienced ones who had honored San as a great goddess. She wondered what they were thinking now. Bodies clashed together, and she could no longer make out anything. San wanted to join them, to be with the people who fought under her name. Eboshi still held her back. "Not yet, San. These men are untrained, and each man will try and kill anyone who comes within his sight. Maybe even his own people without realizing it. They're wearing Osano's men down. Later I'll unleash the real army, and you'll be with them."

"You're a monster."

"Maybe. Probably. But that's what it will take to get your forest back, and don't you forget it. For now we must wait."

They waited for what seemed like forever as Eboshi sent groups of reinforcements in regular intervals. Lord Kei rode up and talked to his wife. "How are we doing?"

"I'm not sure. It's hard to tell just from looking at that mess. Are your men ready? I've just about exhausted our supply of farmers."

"They're ready."

"Very well. Stand by, then. San?"

The wolf girl looked at her coldly. "You are ready for me now?"

"Not quite. I'm sending Ashitaka."

Fear surged through San, and she quickly tried to suppress it. Ashitaka was a great warrior, he would survive this. He had already survived so much. And so had she. A large group of men stepped foward, along with Ashitaka. These were the first of Kei's trained and highly skilled army. San slid off the wolf's back and ran to her lifemate, embracing him.

"It's all right. Everything will be all right," he said. He was so calm.

She smiled and nodded. "I just want to make sure you won't do anything stupid, like get yourself killed."

"I won't. I promise."

They kissed quickly, and then he left with the rest of the men. San lost him in the crowd of fighting warriors.

"Next wave, get ready!" Eboshi shouted. "San, this is you."

The wolf girl took a deep breath, focusing her energy. She was not afraid.

"Will you do the honors?" the lady asked.

San nodded, then took a deep breath. "Let's go!" she shouted, urging her brother on. The girl and the wolves led the charge, and she was immediately assaulted by the strong scent of sweat, blood, and fear. This was not like fighting those other samurai, for now there were many men crushing together in an endless sea of bodies. Dimly she heard a call from the other side, and could tell that more of Osano's samurai were entering the fray. More men to kill. Samurai were running towards her now, and she leaped off her brother and held her dagger ready. They were good fighters, but her superhuman reflexes gave her the definite advantage. Three dead, countless more to go. They kept coming and coming, and she did her best to fight through them. Kei's soldiers were fighting beside her, and they were indeed very skilled. Eboshi had planned this all very well.

San kept a look out for Ashitaka, but she could neither see nor smell him. Her senses were overwhelmed, and she feared she would be driven mad by the chaos around her. As she fought a samurai, several more caught her from behind. She kicked and snarled in fury, but they laughed.

"A sweet little prize!"

"No time. Just kill her."

Suddenly, the two white wolves fell upon the samurai and crushed the startled men in their jaws.

"San, are you injured?"

"Thank you, my brothers. I'm all right," she gasped. One of them had grabbed her throat, and she struggled to catch her breath. "Have you seen Ashitaka?"

"I saw him, he was fighting somewhere back there," one of them answered, glancing over his shoulder.

She nodded. "All right. Keep fighting, this isn't over yet."

* * *

Ashitaka moved slowly through the battlefield, carefully stepping over the bodies of the dead and wounded. It was over, and from what he could tell he figured that Eboshi had won. At a high cost. He clutched his arm to his side. One of the samurai had managed to get him pretty good, but he would be all right. Ashitaka was looking for San. He couldn't find her.

Lord Kei walked up to him. "Ashitaka!" You're all right. Good. You should get yourself to a healer."

"Where's San? Have you seen her?"

"No, not since my wife sent her into battle. I'm sure she's fine, now why don't you come with me ..."

"No! I'm not going anywhere until I find San," Ashitaka said firmly. He walked away, occasionally bending down to look at the faces of the dead.

"Ashitaka!"

He whirled around, and there was San running towards him. She's alive. Thank the gods ... She threw her arms around him, and he held her tight. "You're all right? You and your brothers?"

"Yes, we're fine," she whispered, pressing against him. "Everything's all right, now. Take me away from all this death, Ashitaka. Please?"

"All right."

* * *

Once Eboshi had managed to defeat Osano's army, Iron Town easily fell back into her hands. Kei and Eboshi sent the lord away in disgrace, for he now had to confront an emperor that was no longer friendly towards him. The town had been torn apart during the siege and had to be rebuilt again. Eboshi imagined that she would spend the rest of her life rebuilding the town in some way or another. The people left behind to defend it were all right, though some of the women were noticeably silent.

Several weeks after the town had been cleaned up, Eboshi held a much needed celebration that was topped off by the highly anticipated wedding of Ashitaka and San. San disappointed her - the wolf girl wanted no parts of her plan to hold an extravagant wedding. She merely wanted to be officially wedded to her lifemate; a task that required no fancy clothes and would take only a few minutes. The lady had tried to make Ashitaka convince the girl that tradition and honor were at stake, but the young warrior merely grinned and shrugged. He would stand by his love for the rest of his life, that was for sure. Eboshi supposed that she was trying to make up for skimping out on her own wedding. Damn that Osano.

The wolves by her side, San wore her blue dress with white fur tunic, and the wolf headdress was pushed up. Ashitaka was dressed as he was when he first arrived in Iron Town, and Eboshi imagined that this was how the couple looked when they first met. Despite her gruff appearance, San was as radiant as any bride the lady had ever seen. Perhaps even more so. Ashitaka could not keep his gaze off the girl.

The priest stepped forward, eyeing the wolves nervously. "Who speaks for these two people?"

On San's behalf, the white wolves stepped forward and growled. They would not actually lower themselves by speaking to a human. Eboshi then said, "The wolves speak for San. I speak for Ashitaka. They have the blessing of the forest and of the town."

Ashitaka took San's hands in his own. "I know that our love will bind us always," he said softly. "We will always be home for each other, San. May we never wake up from this wonderful dream." Together, the pair drank from a ceremonial cup.

"May the gods give their blessing upon this special union," the priest said. Ashitaka bent forward and gave his bride a gentle kiss.

"I love you San," he whispered to the girl.

Eboshi felt slightly envious. She knew that she and Kei did not share this same bond, but perhaps someday they would. Someday.

* * *

The young couple walked side by side along the edge of the lake, followed by an elk and two white wolves. He leaned his head close to hers and whispered something that made her laugh. She was cold, so he wrapped his own cloak around her shoulders.

"I'm warm now," she said, snuggling up against him. "Thank you."

He caressed her cheek. "Anything for you, love." Ashitaka reached out and touched the gentle swell of her belly.

San giggled. "That tickles."

He held her close. "Soon it will get warmer, and we can go swimming again."

"Yes, many things will come," she said softly.

They kissed and continued on their way home.

the end

Note: *Whew!* Finally done. Sorry this one took so long, but I kept getting stuck and I've also been really busy lately. This one also wound up being a lot longer than the other ones. I have to mention a couple of nitpicks that bother me as the author: I spelled Asano's name wrong. A couple of stories into it, I saw that his name begins with an "A", not an "O". My bad. Also, I wish I had called Iron Town Tatara Ba because it would have fit better with the other Japanese names. Oh well. For those of you who might want to lecture me on Japanese culture or on the behavior of the characters should keep in mind that this is just fanfiction. If I got anything wrong (I'm sure I probably did) then don't take it seriously. Other than that, I hope this fanfic series entertained you and I would love feedback on it. Thanks for reading.