Sorry for rambling! Enjoy!
Chapter 2: Overcast Skies
Pale shafts of dawn's sunlight darted through the gray clouds at the eastern horizon, the soft rays basking upon the gently waving forest below and warming up the morning. Sayuri sighed quietly. She rolled over, asleep, on her resting place on the lower branch of one of the trees; her deep breathing blew a lock of her short dark hair out of her face as she shifted her position again. Suddenly, one of the beams of early sunlight that had streamed through the upper-forest's leaves struck her face. With a sleepy groan, Sayuri awoke, rubbing her eyes sleepily. She didn't even remember that she had stayed out last night to do some extra training.
Sayuri sat up and stretched as she listened to the morning birds chatter with each other. She loved quiet mornings like this, full of all things that were peace and tranquility.
All of a sudden, something rather large and bright came rushing toward her face.
"Wahh!" Sayuri screamed and backed away from the object, which seemed to have stopped moving by this time.
"Good mooooorning, Sayuri-chan!" a chipper voice called. Once Sayuri had calmed down and her vision focused on the thing in front of her, she realized that it wasn't a thing at all, but in fact a person. A person who was way too energetic for early morning.
"S-suki-chan?" Sayuri asked, blinking. Sure enough, another girl had appeared in front of her. She had long light-green hair tied up in a messy bun. She also wore a dark green turtleneck sleeveless shirt, the lack of sleeves covered by long black fingerless gloves. Her black skirt had a slit in it, enveloped on the inside by gray shorts. This person had come to be known by Sayuri as one of the most hyper and slightly overly exasperating people she had ever known. This person was called Suki.
"Yup yup, that's me!" Suki exclaimed. Strangely, her friend had just noticed that she was hanging upside-down from the branch above her. Sayuri turned her head so that she could talk to the girl easier.
"Suki-chan? What are you doing upside-down?" she asked. As if she had suddenly remembered her position, Suki flipped her legs over the edge of the branch so that she spun in midair before landing lightly on her toes.
"Well, obviously I came to find you," she pouted, a little upset that her friend didn't seem to think that she cared so much. "Did you know that you were gone all night?"
"So I've been told," Sayuri replied sarcastically. Suki went on without pausing or taking a breath.
"… I mean, Ketsueki-sama was wondering where you were, since you're usually back home every night. Even Takoru-kun was kind of worried about you." Sayuri smiled inwardly. Her heart was secretly happy that Takoru was concerned about her.
"So let me get this straight," Sayuri interrupted her friend. "You came all the way out here this early to look for me?" Suki nodded and grinned.
"Of course I did," she replied. "Now lets get back to the castle. I'm hungry." Sayuri smiled; it was like Suki to say something like that. They both jumped off the tree branch to land on the ground, and the friends started walking through the forest, their steps shrouded in silence. Suddenly, Sayuri spoke up.
"Suki, do you remember when we first met?" Suki seemed a little taken aback at this question.
"… When we first met…?" she repeated. Sayuri nodded. "Hmm…" Suki seemed to be thinking hard. "Well… it was a long time ago?" Her companion laughed.
"Nice start," she said. Of course, Sayuri didn't really expect Suki to remember that time so long ago. She barely remembered things that happened a short time ago. But Sayuri knew that she would never forget the days that she met her three best friends. After all, how could she when the times before that had been some of the hardest times in her life…?
Thunder rumbled the quiet countryside, a forewarning wind whistling through the waving grass. A small boy sat huddled under a tree, his head leaning against the bark and his eyes painfully shut. Suddenly a rustling sound made him wake up.
"Otoutosan…?" Sayuri stood above her little brother, her face full of concern. "Otoutosan, are you alright?" Tsudo blinked a couple of times and looked up at his sister.
"Yeah, of course," he said quickly. Sayuri continued to look at him suspiciously. Finally, she gave up and plopped down next to him.
"Alright, otoutosan, did you get any food?" Tsudo made a face and opened his palm to show a couple of wild mushrooms and some plant that looked slightly edible. Sayuri tried to smile, although that was the majority of their meal tonight.
"What about you?" Tsudo asked. Sayuri shook her head sadly.
"I went around that village nearby, but no one would give me much food," she explained. "Gomen; all I got was this." She too opened her palm to show a fist-sized lump of stale bread. Tsudo sighed, but also tried to smile. However, it didn't really work, because his stomach growled loudly at the same time. Sayuri looked to the ground.
"Well… I got a fire," her brother suddenly added, hoping to raise spirits. He pointed to a spot on the ground that was now a couple of embers. Sayuri seemed to be a little happier.
"That's good!" she exclaimed. She looked to the sky and the clouds and thunder it held. She then looked back to Tsudo. "Okay, let's hurry to make dinner before the storm comes." She grabbed the pot the siblings had found and hurried to the stream nearby their "campsite", while Tsudo attempted to get the fire going again.
And that was how the pot of dark-ish looking stew was born.
"Alright, otoutosan!" Sayuri called, stirring the food with her finger. "It's ready!" Tsudo, who had been resting in the same fashion as before, opened his eyes and gave a weak smile.
"That's great, oneesan," he said quietly. He crawled over to the pot and took a sip. And then he spit it out, grimacing.
"What the heck is in this thing?!" he yelled, gagging. Sayuri looked slightly offended but surprised.
"Well, all the stuff that we gathered, of course," she said matter-of-factly.
"No way is all the stuff that I had in this slop!" Tsudo protested. Sayuri looked inside the pot.
"Of course it is," she said.
"No!" her brother replied loudly, still gagging. "Look," he said pointing to something swirling in the dark mess. "Is that dirt?!"
"No, it isn't," Sayuri said defensively. "This is perfectly fine 'Mushroom and Leek Soup'." Without bothering to tell her that the plant he found probably wasn't leek, Tsudo frowned and crossed his arms.
"Fine, then! You eat it!" he said. Sayuri looked inside her pot again. She then, too, grimaced and tipped the pot over with her foot.
"Gomen, otoutosan," she sighed. "You know I can't cook for my life." As much as Tsudo wanted to make her feel better, he had to agree with her. There was a period of silence.
"Now we don't have any food," Tsudo pointed out. Sayuri groaned and leaned back against the tree. Tsudo leaned against her shoulder and closed his eyes. But he didn't get any sleep before Sayuri shot up and put her hand on his forehead alarmingly.
"Otoutosan!!!" she exclaimed, her voice shaking. "You have a fever!" Tsudo pushed her hand off of his forehead and put his own on.
"No I don't," he whispered, obviously lying. Sayuri crouched in front of him, her eyes wide.
"Otoutosan, you can't deny it! You're sick!" The young girl closed her eyes and tried to think. In these days, the two major causes of death were famine and sickness. They already had the famine part down, as they hadn't had anything decent to eat since their parents died. If Tsudo even had a slight fever, she would have been scared to death. And now, he had something worse. She breathed deeply to try to control herself.
"Tsudo, we've got to try to get you to a doctor," she said finally, coming to no other possible solution. Tsudo coughed a little as the wind rose and the first drops of rain started to fall.
"You know that we can't do that," he protested. "You said that no one in that village was friendly." Sayuri looked up at the sky in her panic. Sheets of rain were starting to pummel the ground.
What am I going to do?!
And then, a bolt of lightning tore the sky in half, corresponding with a positively loud crack.
"Well, well, well! What do we have here?" A mocking, scratchy voice rose over the sound of the rain. Sayuri turned toward this person's direction alarmingly. And sure enough, he wasn't bringing good news. A tall, but rather skinny, man stood behind the siblings. He had hair tied up in a short ponytail and wore something like fake armor and rags. "Two kiddies, I see?" Some of his teeth were missing, and others were crooked. But what scared Sayuri most was the murderous glint in his hysterical black eyes.
Sayuri grabbed Tsudo and pulled him back, she trying to get them away from the man.
"W-what… w-w-what do you want with us?!" Sayuri said loudly, trying hard to keep her voice from shaking. The man grinned sinisterly. Suddenly, another bolt of lightning struck the sky. The light danced off of the dagger he pulled out at that moment.
"Two little kiddies, all alone in the storm," he whispered manically, apparently ignoring Sayuri. "Kill them… yes, kill them for meat tonight." Sayuri screamed.
"N-no!" she shrieked, pulling Tsudo farther back with her. She tried to get up with him in her arms, but he was too heavy for her to carry. "G-g-get away from u-us!!"
Suddenly, the man gave a frenzied cackle as he swung the dagger at the siblings. Sayuri cried out and ducked, the blade just missing her by centimeters.
"Yes, must kill…" the man said quietly, pulling the dagger directly over Sayuri's head. Another flash of lightning lit the field, making his eyes look bright red. "Kill!" The dagger flashed again. Sayuri squeezed her eyes, sure she was about to die. Tsudo's heavy breathing warmed the front of her shirt, and she thought about what would happen to him. And she waited for death. And waited. And waited. And waited… And the doors of death never did accept her into their final embraces.
Finally, Sayuri had the courage to look up. The man was staring wide-eyed at something behind her. Ann arrow was buried deep within his chest, spreading blood across his ragged shirt. He dropped his dagger, causing it to clatter across the dirt ground. And the man collapsed. Sayuri turned around slowly, afraid of another deranged bandit. But behind her, halfway between the stream and the tree she was under, stood an old man with thinning white hair and a white beard. But although he and his ragged clothes were soaking wet, his striking blue eyes struck the bandit with undeniable hatred and ferocity.
Sayuri took a deep breath, gasping for air. The rain around her was getting so thick that she could hardly see him. But she could see him waving to her.
"Hey!!" he shouted across the pouring rain. "Follow me!!" Without hesitation, Sayuri grabbed Tsudo's arm and put it around her shoulders.
"C-can you walk?" she asked him, her voice still trembling with numb disbelief. Tsudo nodded weakly.
"Y-yeah… I think so…"
Another flash of lightning struck the sky, lighting its darkness up for a split second, and Sayuri shot up, her eyes wide. She seemed to be in a small house, lying in a straw bed covered with skins. She looked around hesitantly. Tsudo lay in a similar bed nearby, his wet face dancing with the firelight that crackled next to him. Over this fire bubbled a pot of something that smelled a lot better than Sayuri's stew.
I must have… fainted… she realized silently. B-but where am I?!
Suddenly, she heard a small sound; she turned to see the doorway, the old man entering the cozy room, soaking wet. He eyed her with one of his bright blue eyes.
"Awake, now, are you?" He shook his hair violently, causing water to shower everywhere. He then walked over to her and felt her forehead; his hand was surprisingly soft.
"Um…" Sayuri started, but he cut her off.
"Fever's gone, now, eh?" The man quickly turned to go stir the pot over the fire. Sayuri's head was throbbing; now she was more confused than ever.
"W-who are you?" The old man coughed and continued stirring the pot without looking back at her.
"You can call me Iwao," he said roughly.
"I-Iwao-san?" Sayuri blinked. Iwao prodded the fire with his foot.
"You're in my house now," he said without turning around. He paused. "That bandit sure gave you and your brother a rough time, didn't he? Would have killed you if I hadn't been there." There was no arguing with that.
"Iwao-san…" Sayuri repeated. "T-Thank you… for saving our lives…" This time, Iwao turned around.
"My wife was killed by one of those bandits years ago," he stated simply. "There's no reason to thank me. I was just doing the right thing."
"B-but…" Sayuri tried to argue with him but he turned around again and picked up the pot.
"Eat," he commanded gruffly. He plopped the pot of delicious smelling stew on the table in the middle of the room. "You need your strength. It's still amazing that you were able to survive so long with a fever that high." Now, Sayuri felt that she needed to contradict him.
"But Iwao-san!" she said. "I don't have a fever." With a pang, she got up and kneeled next to Tsudo. She had almost forgotten about his serious condition with all the excitement. "My brother does!" She frantically felt his forehead tenderly; to her immense relief, it felt normal. She turned back to the old man, her heart calming down. "He's… he's alright now, isn't he?"
"You both had something of a fever," Iwao explained brusquely. "I'd say that you've both been sick for almost a week now." Sayuri's eyes widened in surprise. She knew that Tsudo was sick, but her too? And for that long? She brushed her brother's soft dark hair out of his face gently. Iwao curtly poured the stew into two wooden bowls.
"Eat," he said again, gesturing toward the table. Sayuri, not wanting her savior to get angry, quickly took a bowl and sat down on her straw bed, sipping her dinner quietly as she listened to the pounding rain rattle against the ceiling.
Her heart was filled with bliss. Iwao had saved her life as well as the life of her little brother. And now, they had food, this warm, creamy stew. But she knew that they couldn't depend on his gratuity forever. Sayuri watched the lightning dance in the cloudy sky. She knew that they'd have to leave soon... very soon. And the crackling of thunder corresponded with her quiet, distressed sigh. The rain just wouldn't stop.
Sayuri continued her walk with Suki across the forest grounds. Through the trees, she could now see the dirt path that lead to the Mangetsu castle. All of a sudden, a hand waved across her face.
"Sayuri-chan?" Suki turned her head as she faced her friend. "Are you alright?" Sayuri realized that she had been daydreaming longer than she had thought.
"Yeah, I'm okay," she replied quickly. Suki grinned and with a burst of air, she skipped lightly ahead, subconsciously using her power to land carelessly on her toes with each step. Sayuri smiled as well as she leaned her face upward to bathe in one of the streams of light that protruded the forest's upper canopy; the warmth spread through her limbs like warm golden liquid. The castle was well in sight now. She was home.
Sorry for the quality of this chapter! Next: Chapter 3: Look to Tomorrow