The Courtship of Kikyou
A tale of the Love That Was
Chapter 4: Winter
As she closed yet another man's eyes, Kikyou wondered why this winter had become so fierce. The autumn had been mild enough, she reflected. But the winter had been cruel, indeed, bringing with it plague wind and disease.
The hardworking menfolk, outside in the chill and the cold, has been infected first. They took the illness home to their wives and children, who fell prey to the disease even more quickly. The disease was nigh unto an epidemic, but nothing could be done. Settled so close to the mountains, the small village had protection, but it also had hard days travel to the nearest city. The messenger they had sent never returned.
Kikyou lifted her head at her sister's call, and saw Kaede waving her small hand as she lead in yet another woman. This one bore her babe in her arms, small and weak. She'd waited too long to come for aid, that much Kikyou could tell by the girlchild's color and breathing. The babe would not live out the week. But the miko rose, despite the futility of giving care, and moved to take the young child from the weeping, miserable mother.
"I will see to her," Kikyou said quietly, ignoring the fractured sobs of gratitude that followed her to one of the mats, where she prepared to make the girl's passing as comfortable and easy as she could.
Others helped her; none with priestesses, but some of the unmarried young women had come up to aid in the work as best they could; the men could not be spared, and the older women joined their husbands and fathers in hard winter work. The disease quickly sapped the strength of the infected, and so any strong back or set of steady hands was put to use these days.
Kikyou's hands were filled with balm against suffering, peace before death, and last rites. But they were just as needed as any other hands.
As the night drew on, no others came to her door. Once the sun had set, the shrine was shuttered against the night, candles lit for the crying children. The flickering lights in the dark were a small comfort to the young, and the weak men and women slept regardless of night or day.
Drawing into the chambers she shared with Kaede, she washed her hands thoroughly, and then donned the heaviest cloak and a broad hat to shield her from the wind and snow.
Graves needed digging.
Kaede watched her sister through it all, one action as rote as the next She knew her sister felt for these people, but it was hard to watch. Kikyou moved so mechanically from one task to the next that it was almost as if she could not spare too much time to care.
Kaede knew better.
She knew her sister cried when the wind whipped her face, digging alone in the night, when no one saw her work endlessly, till she returned to collapse onto her thin mat and claim the few hours of sleep she could.
She stoked the brazier and waited. Kikyou's grief was shared only with the cold earth and Kaede could not bring herself to intrude. Even as the shovel rose and fell, chopping up hard earth so it could be tossed aside, Kaede listened and huddled around the warmth of their fire, keeping the room warm so that Kikyou would have that comfort, at least, when she came in from the chill.
One grave was dug a night. More then one body, however, awaited burial. Kept in white shrouds, buried as soon as one was able, the stink of the dead was lost to the cold of one of the shrine's adjoining rooms. There they gave last rites, allowed family to mourn, and then one by one, moved the bodies by night.
For every one they moved, another replaced it.
Kaede waited and watched the brazier crackle, until hours had passed, and the night was pitch and the sky almost moonless. A sliver of silver shown in the sky, offering scant light for grim work, waning as the evenings turned. In three days, it would be the first new moon, the new month.
Kiykou returned with the dark at her back and in her eyes. She did not smile for her sister, but Kaede did not expect it. She merely waited for Kikyou to rinse her hands and wrap them with poultice, so that her raw, roughened palms would heal.
The candles were blown out, and the sisters slept.
The next morning found new a new grave filled; as Kikyou buried the dead, she thought of Inu-Yasha. It was hard not to; in every snow-laden bough, in every streak of blood, she saw his colors. His youki was never felt, but she saw him everywhere.
She found herself missing him. He was crude, naïve, and not even human...
...But there was no denying that there was something she'd felt for him, something that she'd never really experienced before; a warmth that was fading with winter's cruelty and his absence.
But it was not the only fading she had to be concerned with. The village population was rapidly declining, and she was faced with painful questions.
"Will there be more death?"
"Will my husband live?"
"Will you save us, Kikyou-sama?"
Deep inside, she doubted. Had she weakened so much that she could not fight famine or hunger? That disease would kill her village, leaving her alone.
Work went on, and the days dragged by. The new moon came and went, only to wax as the cycle of the heavens went forward. Kikyou tended the sick, accumulated bodies, till no more able bodied men could be spared to dig graves. Left with the thankless task herself, she covered herself and began to work the earth.
The hoe's bite was as rhythmic as her heart beat; her blood pulsed with each up swing, each downward drop; the rituals of the dead, even in the simplicity of simple burial, permeated her life. Shinto was the celebration of life; the way of the Kami celebrated the divinity of all things. Death was part of life, yes, but it was an ending, and one did not celebrate an ending unless there was a tangible renewal at the end.
One did not celebrate loss.
Inu-Yasha, she thought as she dug, are you alive? Does your heart still beat? Have you found food and shelter, somewhere kinder?
Do you still hate yourself?
Her thought betrayed her; the rhythm was lost, and the pick struck a rock; her cold-numbed hands were jarred painfully; when she lost her grip on the tool's haft, she only then realized she'd worked her palms bloody. A delicate frown, subdued as the miko herself, touched her lips.
She retrieved the hoe, and left the last grave incomplete.
I should put him far from my thoughts. He is lost to me. What I hoped to see was nothing, an illusion.
The warmth of the shrine was a comfort; Kaede worked among the sick just as her sister did, and only glanced up when she heard the hiss of winter wind as the door opened. "Onee-sama?"
"Bandages please, Kaede."
Kaede finished wiping the brow of the patient she was tending, and then rose to do as Kikyou bid. She would make a fine priestess, Kikyou mused as she watched her. Dedicated, almost as solemn as her sister, and with the same tenacity of spirit that Kikyou was known for. Her power was a softer, gentler thing, though.
The Shikon no Tama would not be passed on to her, Kikyou was certain. Another successor would have be found…
…or the gem, somehow, destroyed or purified.
But she put these thoughts away as Kaede tended her hands gently. The look was in her eyes again; You work too hard. But Kikyou and Kaede both knew that the miko could not rest, could not turn away from her duty.
So it was that her wounds were tended, and she went on to lighter duties, before the sisters collapsed to their mats and slept deeply.
By dawn, all the graves had been dug by hands unknown.
Kikyou had found them after rising, her brows furrowing as she stared down at the neat, empty holes, one for each body currently waiting for internment in the shrine. The hoe was back in the store house, and the mounds of cold, hard earth were well worked so that it would be easily pushed back over the dead.
Burials and rites were performed, and Kikyou thought little of it. The dead were buried. Her shrine was full of the sick. She still had work to do.
Three days after the burials happened, she worked the earth again to bury the dead. Again, she left the work unfinished. Again, the villagers were buried.
This time, she inquired among the village men, to find out the kind soul and thank them properly. None could take credit for the deed; none claimed the strength to break the earth so often and so well.
And while her face was placid and calm, she felt her heart clench with a secret, forbidden hope.
Did he come back?
The snow swallowed tracks like the sick gulped down cool water. There was no way to track a youkai – or a hanyou – in this weather. But she would try.
Leaving Kaede with the sick, she gathered her arrows and bow and headed out upon the lake. It was slow poling; it was frozen in spots, slats of jagged ice floes floating in the water, making the trek difficult. But all the same, she went back to the place she had not been in some months.
Inu-Yasha's den; it was as she remembered it, but left uncared for it had fallen to rot; the furs that had once warmed her soaked and chilled body – No, the furs were merely a cover; it was Inu-Yasha's own body that gave her heat and revived her – now gave shelter to vermin that scattered when she prodded the pile with her bow.
He'd left in a rush, and he'd left all the affect he'd collected here. Small pieces of crudely shaped wood made to horses and animals of the forest given shape were going soft and rotting from the damp, and a dirty child's ball was hidden away in a nook.
Did you play, once, Inu-Yasha? Before you hunted stag in the wood, caught fish in the lake?
Handling the grubby ball, she suddenly felt guilty for intruding here. She had driven him from this haven, and he had left everything behind.
She had been needlessly cruel.
Putting the ball back in its niche, she quickly left the cavern behind, and headed for her boat once more.
But even as she neared the edge of the lake, something resonated with her spirit; a sense of youki in the distance. Had Inu-Yasha come back, but chosen a new den? The mountains were riddled with caves he could use, if he saw fit.
She found herself walking toward the mountains, the crags jagged before her. It was stronger here, but the winds grew fiercer. The youki grew stronger.
It was not Inu-Yasha in these peaks. There was too much power here, not tinged with the repressed humanity that ran in the hanyou's veins. This was a real youkai, a trueblooded, purebred spirit.
And it was not happy to see her.
She did not knock her bow; the winds raged too strong here – whether by sorcery or simple weather she could not tell. All the same, she went headed into the crags, finding the silvery trails of power in the ether; the youki was strong, but it tore at her senses, lashing her third eye like a whip.
She pressed forward. She'd come looking for the hanyou, and she had found a lurking monster. Duty demanded its death.
She followed the roar of the wind; it seemed to come forth from a dark cave set beneath an overhand.
On the wind, she heard voices.
She recognized them. A mother. A child. A farmer. Her hands clenched. Was this a demon of plague? Was it killing the villagers? Or was this some trick of the wind? Was it guilt made manifest?
It didn't matter. Whatever it was within these caves, it was not a good thing.
Within the mouth of the cave, the wind ebbed to merely a breeze, its cool fingers tugging at her sleeves. Here, she drew an arrow and knocked her bow, advancing into the dark. She could sense the thing in the distance – but as she came into a deep cavern, she didn't need to sense it anymore.
She could see it.
It was a woman, lovely like an ice sculpture and likely just as cold. She plucked the strings of a koto harp, creating terrible music. It was the sounds of pain and suffering, a sigh, a moan, a cry, each in the voice of one of her villagers. So entranced was she with her own feverish playing that she did not look up.
Kikyou drew the arrow, and took aim.
It screamed through the windblown cavern and struck true; the koto shattered, and the woman was tossed aside by the force of the arrow's impact, holy energy sizzling in the remains of the infernal instrument.
"Bitch!" she shrieked as she spied Kikyou on at the mouth of her cavern. "You'll pay for that!"
Kikyou said nothing as she drew another arrow, even as the youkai advanced. This icy devil was no match for her; the youki she had felt was cut to a quarter; her power had lain in the enchanted music that had carried plague on the winds to her village.
She let the arrow fly; the youkai attempted to dodge aside, only to be struck in the shoulder. She was blasted backward by the force of the arrow – and pinned to the rocky, cavern wall.
Screeching in pain, she writhed, tugging on the arrow she could not pull free. Kikyou let her, as the priestess came forward to investigate her koto.
"You were feeding upon the souls. You brought them to you on the wind, so I could not sense you close to the village."
"It should have been perfect!" the woman screeched. "Perfect! I could have grown fat on the souls of the dead all winter and then slaughtered you before it was spring! I could have had the Shikon no Tama!"
Kikyou said nothing. She merely knelt, and touched the strings of the koto, notcing the fine, white filament… the strange texture.
"This is hair," Kikyou said, frowning slightly.
"A soul full of longing and pain is needed to string the Koto no Gentou!" the ice woman said, still working the arrow futilely
"Where did it come from?" Kikyou asked, even as she rose. She drew another arrow. "Tell me."
"A hanyou, full of loneliness!" The youkai spat. "It was easily plucked, once he was frozen by the winters to the north of here!"
Kikyou nodded quietly, and then lifted her bow, took aim – ignoring the screams and epithets of the youkai, she loosed an arrow for her heart. Its flight was true, pierced the demon's heart, sealing her in the dark.
She went back to the koto, and gathered the white hairs quietly, one after the other, and then tucked them into a hidden pocket with the sleeves of her kimono. Leaving the cave behind, she did not look back once on the broken, ruined vassal of power, or the yuki-onna she left, breast pieced by an arrow shaft.
It was late when she finally made her way out of the mountains, and bitterly cold. But still she pressed on toward the lake and the den near it. It was to the cave she went first, to lay the hairs among the furs; if this was truly what remained of Inu-Yasha, she would rather it be laid to rest here, where she had woken warm and safe in his arms for the first and likely only time.
But she did not linger; her tired bones wanted a soft pallet and a warm temple, so it was that she poled across the lake, her eyes set ahead on the village in the distance; she could make it out once they were half-way across; the tiny lights flickering and dancing in the distance.
Finally reaching the opposite shore, she made her way quickly through the fields toward the village, her geta clacking over the hard ground. The village was empty; everyone was safe in their beds, unaware that now no more children would fall sick to demon-borne plague, hate-filled soul-stealing thwarted for now.
But as she headed up the stairs, she paused; there was a sound behind the temple, in the graveyard. She listened, then, to the rhythmic rise and fall of a shovel, the crack of cold ground under strength, she realized, could not belong to any human.
Her heart clenched, but she headed quietly around the temple, cloaking her presence with silence and sorcery.
The shovel was lifted high; the hands that held it were large and strong, and the arms, bared in the motion, were well muscled. She had not by any stretch of the imagination been able to memorize their contours in their short time together, but regardless, the warmth of them, had they been around her, would have been familiar to Kikyou.
They were Inu-Yasha's arms; rightly attached to Inu-Yasha's body. Inu-Yasha's living, breathing, grave-digging body.
She blinked mutely at him for a moment, trying to figure out what she could say now; what words could be a suitable greeting, when just moments ago, she'd been contemplating an eternal loss.
He noticed her, finally, as the shovel was driven into the dirt. He turned around, then, his ears perking, pink shells focusing on the sounds she had purposefully muffled.
"Kikyou," he said her name slowly, as if uncertain.
"Inu-Yasha," she said with far more clarity of thought, though she could not keep the surprise from her face. "It is good to see you"
"Is it?" Inu-Yasha asked, with a soft snort. "Keh. You're getting soft," he said, "If you didn't realize I was here all this time."
"Maybe I have," Kikyou agreed. The yuki-onna's presence certainly indicated a lapse in her guardianship, an unforgivable one. But guilt and recrimination did her no good; Inu-Yasha was standing here, looking at her with his pale, inscrutable eyes.
"Why did you dig the graves?" she finally asked.
"Why not?" he asked in return.
"They were nothing to you."
"They still are. But you had bigger things to worry about."
"You caught on a little late, Kikyou," he smirked, then, smug as hell. "I'm disappointed."
"It was a… dereliction in my duty. It won't happen again."
"What happened to all that talk?" he finally asked, "About not being human? You're letting your guard down, if you're letting a snow spirit like that bitch get by you."
"And you? Your hair became the strings of her koto," Kikyou shot back, though gently.
Inu-Yasha rubbed at his scalp, and then shrugged. "It was a lucky cut," was all he could say. "But she didn't take my head, now did she?"
"She didn't need it," Kikyou replied. But she bit her tongue, demanding it cease in this useless back and forth. He was here, he was alive. That was important! Not the conflict between man, youkai, and hanyou.
"I have thought of you," she said slowly. "But I also thought you might not return."
"I'm here now, aren't I?" he snapped, but then fell silent. "I'm not your damn man, though. I just like this land. Good hunting, good weather when there's no snow-bitch mucking it up, and a good den."
He did not speak of the Shikon no Tama, and its absence brought hope to Kikyou's heart.
"You are welcome to stay," Kikyou finally said. "I would be… glad if you did."
He blinked at her, before he looked away, reaching to unbind his sleeves so they could fall and cover his bare arms. "You should go get where it's warm," he finally said. "Since there won't be anymore corpses that should be your last damn grave." He looked down the shallow pit he'd dug; one for a child, she was certain.
"Thank you," she said again.
"It wasn't for you," Inu-Yasha snapped. "I just couldn't stand the stink of death wafting off the fuckin' village."
She smiled, despite his harshness. He had not changed. He hadn't changed at all.
She adored him for it.
"I'll see to Kaede and those who still suffer," she said, beginning to turn. "And I will… see you again?"
"Maybe," Inu-Yasha said. "I did a pretty good job of hiding out, huh?" His face split into a wide grin. "You had no idea I was here, did you? Admit it!"
Kikyou only gave him a slight smile; far be it from her to stroke the hanyou's ego. Turning in silence, she left him to wonder, listening to him begin to stutter and stammer as she turned away, demanding an answer then and there.
She'd see him again. He was caught now, as much as she was, by the stands of fate. Still, she could not help but wonder, as she looked into the shrine, felt the power of the shikon no tama radiating from its post…
…what future did a woman who could not be human and a hanyou who could not be a man have together, anyway?