(Crane Feather)

Chapter One: The Warrior in the Water

Dark waves embrace him
Water closes over him
Lord of fishes now

- Haiku for the Drowned

Nihon country, Ōkawa han
Eighty-fifth Year of the Ninkyou Era

It was a cool night in early spring when she found him, lying motionless in the shallows. He had washed up on the shore of Lake Urashima like an old piece of driftwood. His face was still young – barely one-and-twenty years of age, she supposed – for all the seriousness of the expression writ upon it. It bore a sternness that even the waves had been unable to wash away. She made a makeshift camp in a small clearing, and built a small fire to drive away the cold, clammy fingers of fog that emanated from the nearby waters. Having tended to him as best she could and unsure of what else to do, she waited patiently for him to awaken.

He was at first unyielding. In the forest, a light wind sprung up, streaming through the branches and still whispering vaguely of winter. It almost seemed to mimic the sound of a distant ocean. Indeed, from where he listened, in a realm that lay just beyond wakefulness, he thought he heard the encroaching clamour of shifting waves. For a moment longer, he dreamed of a watery abyss; of mountains which flowed, constantly ascending, only to come crashing back down overhead; of deep, dark valleys that ebbed around him, drawing him further into their shifting embrace. He floated tranquilly in a lake that was no longer real; it was a lake filled with nothingness, and yet this 'nothing' had depth and substance, undulating around him, lapping gently on all sides. Then, the sound changed, gradually at first. It drew away, becoming indistinct, until it came rushing back, and he suddenly recognized it. It was the sound of a hungry flame voraciously devouring dry kindling.

From what seemed a great distance, he felt fingers curl around his arm. It was a light touch, yet it sent a jolt straight through him. Then a hand closed on his left shoulder, dragging him swiftly back into the world of the living.

Too swiftly. He lurched forwards, his eyes instinctively snapping open. For a moment, his senses swam. A hoarse gasp escaped him, and as the air hit his lungs, flames seared through his chest. He choked and gasped for breath, like he had forgotten how to breathe. Reality reappeared as though a veil had been ripped away from his senses. He felt solid earth beneath him; sounds sharpened, damp smells reached his nostrils. His vision, at first impossibly bleary, gradually began to clear. A vague array of colours rearranged themselves until he recognized a human form – that of a young woman – kneeling beside him. She seemed in the act of drawing away from him, as though startled. Her hand remained outstretched towards his shoulder. He realized that as he had risen from his prone position upon the ground, he had clutched at his own left arm involuntarily, almost defensively.

Pain lashed his body. Panting heavily from the exertion of raising himself, his lungs seemed to be on fire. Nausea and dizziness assailed him and overcome, he lowered himself onto his back again. The ground beneath him was a cold, yet solidly comforting presence against the giddiness. His temples maintained a slow, relentless throb. His garments were damp and clung to him, their weight heavy on his weakened limbs. Heavier still was the realization – he was undoubtedly, miserably alive.

"Um, I…"

The gentle voice came from close beside him. He reopened the eyes he had closed against the dizziness, and silently surveyed the woman from where he lay. Her hands were clasped before her self-consciously, and she gazed shyly at him from beneath two delicate rows of black eyelashes. "I'm sorry if my actions seemed presumptuous." Her voice was soft; respectful. She continued somewhat haltingly: "I pulled you from the water. At first I believed you drowned, but then I saw that you still breathed…I feared you'd catch your death in wet clothes and I… I thought it prudent t-to…" She trailed off, a slight blush suffusing her cheeks with colour. Her words remained unsaid, yet their implication, and the hand that had touched his shoulder, were eloquent.

"You found me in the water?"

His voice was little more than a strangled whisper, sounding harsh and otherworldly in his own ears. She nodded acquiescence. He glanced around; he could see the jagged outline of treetops in his peripheral vision.

"How did…?"

"I managed to convey you here, in the shelter of the woods. Nights can still be bitterly cold at this time of year. Without a fire, I feared you would die out in the open."

Having learned all this, he closed his eyes again. For a moment, he again dreamt of undulating waves. Of being immersed within their depths, within their silence; of the void that had existed in their tumultuous embrace…

Of the peace he had found within chaos…

"Thank you, Miss, for saving my life." The words were spoken with something that might have resembled reluctance. Almost bitterness. However, if the girl noticed it, she did not show it.

"My name is Kotori. Might I inquire after yours?"

His mind struggled with the question for a moment, simple though it was. "It's Shiro."

He was rewarded with a very pretty smile. "Can you rise, Shiro-san? You should move closer to the fire and warm yourself."

He obeyed gingerly, pausing once he had risen to sit, as the dizziness and pain tried to reclaim him. Reaching out, his hand touched something smooth and hard – the lacquered surface of a sword's sheath. It had been strapped to his back when he had entered the water. It was a wonder it hadn't been lost in the current's throes.

He pulled himself along the ground towards the flickering glow of the fire, leaning heavily on his right arm. His movements were stiff and slow. Every muscle in his body felt bruised, as though the rough waters of the lake had batted him about at their leisure, like a cat toying with a hapless mouse. As he moved closer, the warmth of the flames washed over him. He seated himself before it, and unabashedly removed his right arm from its sleeve, letting his shirt fall partly open. Kotori politely and properly averted her eyes, but for a moment he felt their gaze rest upon him. It made his skin prickle, particularly when it swept over his left arm which, perhaps out of modesty or self-consciousness, remained stubbornly enclosed in its sleeve. Not so much as a finger was visible within the expanse of cloth; the end of the sleeve was bound securely closed with a cord. The fabric, though wet, still hung loosely, refusing to divulge any hint of the form beneath. This was the same arm he had clutched defensively when Kotori had roused him. Perhaps the limb was deformed, or had been lost to battle or disease?

The rest of his body seemed to negate this last theory. Not so much muscular, he was lean and slender. The muscles of his right arm were more pronounced, as though their strength had been cultivated by frequent use. It was the body of a practiced swordsman; powerful, yet slight and agile. The sword, which he kept close at hand, was at least three sun longer than a regular katana, and therefore would also be heavier. It would take powerful arms to wield such a weapon effectively. A scar snaked up his right arm from wrist to elbow, the skin pale and slightly puckered where an extensive wound, possibly a burn, had long-since healed over.

Kotori fed the flames with sticks from a pile by the fireside. Shiro considered her with a sidelong glance.

She knelt beside him in a formal position, her legs tucked beneath her, and her hands resting lightly on her knees. She looked into the fire solemnly, her face bathed in a rosy glow. Now that he truly looked at her, he noticed that she was remarkably attractive. Her mouth was a beautiful shape, her skin uncommonly pale. She knelt beside him with a subtle grace; her manner resembled the daintiness of a bird on a limb. Despite himself, he began to wonder who she was and what she was doing here. She appeared to be approximately his age, or perhaps younger; it was so hard to tell with women. Though her adornments were quite modest – her face was untouched by cosmetics, her hair ornaments simple, her clothes well-made but hardly elaborate – every nuance of her speech and bearing somehow suggested refinement. A folded fan was tucked into her sash. Her entire accoutrement somehow resembled a shrine maiden's garb, yet was also dissimilar. He could glean little about her from her appearance; she was neat and composed, despite camping in a desolate forest clearing. On the contrary, she looked as though she could have just stepped out into the garden of an elegant mansion in a prosperous town. Why would a maiden of high-birth – or any woman, for that matter – venture out, alone and well after nightfall, into open wilderness?

For a few moments, perhaps, Shiro's thoughts ran thus; then his interest in her seemed to pass like a cloud before the moon, and he returned his gaze to the fire that was greedily consuming the kindling. The warm air radiating from it evaporated the moisture from his bared skin, until he was able to replace his semi-dry clothing. The heat had by now suffused his cold, numb limbs with a returning sense of feeling. Yet there was a part of him, an aloofness, that couldn't seem to thaw before the flames.

A coldness that appeared to be rooted in his soul.

After some time in silence, Kotori spoke. The very fire seemed to quieten itself at the sound of her voice, so lovely was it to the ear.

"I presume you are not from around here, Shiro-san. Most people from the village know the dangers of the cliffs and the spillway from the dam. Might I ask what brought you to such a place as this?"

Innocent though her question seemed, he did not answer it right away. For a moment, he stared pensively into the leaping flames, sparks seeming to fly from the intensity of his gaze. Then the slightest of smiles twisted his lips, yet it was a smile of irony rather than pleasure; his eyes remained cold.

"I came here for one purpose, and one purpose alone." His voice, now that he had recovered from the asphyxiation, was low and composed, yet there was something sullen – one could say 'remorseless' – in the seriousness of his tone. If Kotori's voice coaxed forth images of spring, Shiro's seemed to speak from within the depths of chill autumn winds. "I battled outlaws and thieves on the barren roads to arrive at this wretched place so that I might dash my bones upon the cliffs and bury their fragments beneath the waves – put simply, I came here to die."

He seemed to refuse to look at her; lost in his own thoughts, his eyes remained on the flames, which leapt and writhed fretfully. Kotori's eyes widened in shock at his frankness. Forgetting what was proper, she stared at him openly. His resoluteness chilled her. Now she realized why his words of thanks had seemed so stilted, so false…they had been false…but he had felt obliged to thank her for the service she had rendered him, despite the fact it had been unwelcome.

Despite the fact that he had wanted to be left to die.

Her efforts hadn't been appreciated; he had not wanted her to save him at all.

She watched him with a strange feeling in her heart, a feeling that was in part a horrified fascination, but was also pity. What could drive a young man, able in body and nearing the prime of his life, to long for such a vulgar and pain-filled death?

Suddenly, Shiro's eyes darted from the fire to the surrounding woodlands. After a moment, Kotori heard a repetition of what he must have heard before her; the snap of a twig. It was followed seconds later by rustling foliage. Something – or things – roamed the woods.

Shiro methodically scanned the dark sea of vegetation with his eyes, searching for a source of the disturbance. The wind had dropped, rendering the trees completely motionless. Several long moments of near-silence ensued; then, without any prior indication, a branch on the edge of the clearing swung unnaturally in the stillness of the night.

Author's Note: This story is my major project for my university degree. Please read and review, I want a full appraisal, the more critical the better.

This story is set in a fictional version of old Japan - a stylized version, if you like. Henceforth though I have tried to be faithful to period detail, I have changed some things according to my own taste. I hope the story still reads true to Japanese mythology.

My project is for visual art, and is actually half-prose, half-comic book, with the next chapter being drawn as comics. I will try to write a novellized version to post on here, but I don't know when it will be available. In the meantime, I hope you read, enjoy, and tell me what you think.

~ W.J.