The candle on the bedside table flickered as the storm outside found its way through the minuscule spaces in the bedroom’s walls and window frames, grabbing the flame and twisting it this way and that to paint wild shadows on the wall. The boy watched the light with fear-filled eyes, twisting the blankets in his fists and pulling them tight over his head and shoulders. The thunder had woken him to the blackest night he had ever known, and with shaking, fumbling hands he had managed to light the candle to press back the darkness. The wax was but a stub now, the wick was low, and every sound beyond the wall pressed to his back was the heralding of a new monster’s approach, each just waiting to claim him as soon as the fire went out. He shivered at the thought, and felt his eyes began to burn; but he would not cry. He would not shout out. He was going to be seven years old in a week’s time, nearly a man grown. And grown-ups weren’t afraid of the dark.
With one mighty gust, the windows rattled, the wind howled, and the candle went out.
The boy screamed.
Footsteps beyond the door announced the hurried approach of the house’s only other occupant, and the scraping of wood against wood announced the opening of the door. The old man stepped inside, his green eyes illuminated by his own taper and shining with worry. But a second’s scan of the room found nothing amiss but the young boy, cowering in the corner, and the old man’s tensed body relaxed. He turned to the frightened child and in a soothing, wondering voice, asked as he approached, “Kyo?” He sat on the edge of the bed beside the boy, holding the candle between them. “Kyo, what’s wrong?”
A shaking finger poked out from the blanket-nest, pointing to the bedside table. “Th-the c-candle,” he said, gulping. He no longer cared about what a grown-up would or would not do; the young boy was terrified all the same. “The st-storm put it out...”
The old man seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as a fond smile came onto his lips. Turning to the bedside table, he turned the flame of his taper to the wick of the other. Though the first candle had burned low, it had not yet burned out. The double flames illuminated all but the deepest corners, banishing the shadows to the farthest reaches of the bedroom. He set his candle down beside the first and turned to the boy, touching his hair fondly. The young boy had been afraid of the dark nearly since the day he was born, and though he put on a show of being fearless in the day, there were nights when no act was persuasive enough to quiet the terrors.
“Oh, Kyo,” the old man said, his gentle voice matching his soft smile. “You know that there is nothing to fear in the darkness.”
“But th-the demons, Grandfather.” The boy was quaking like a leaf beneath his weathered, wrinkled hand. As the wind howled again and something clattered in the yard, his bright green eyes disappeared beneath the blankets. A moment later, they made a slow reappearance, like a rabbit peering cautiously out of his hole after a hawk’s attack. “I can h-hear them.”
“That was only the wagon I have forgotten to put away,” the old man said. He had no way of knowing what had actually made the sound with the windows shuttered and the land beyond dark, but it seemed as likely as any explanation. “The wind is strong tonight, and is blowing it about. There are no more demons left in this world, little one. Obakenare saved us that battle.”
A sudden flash of indignance at being called little
had the boy’s head coming fully out of the blankets. “I know that!” he said -- but another crack of thunder and howl of wind blew that bravado right out. He shrank back into his blankets and looked up at his grandfather. “But what if she missed some of them?”
The old man chuckled softly and sought the child’s hands beneath the blanket, pulling them out and closing them between his own. “They’re all gone, Kyo. Locked up safe, where they cannot touch you.”
The green eyes that peeked from beneath the blanket seemed to hesitate, weighing the words for their truth. Then slowly, he allowed the flax cloth to fall around his shoulders, sending his dark hair standing up every which way. “Could you read me the story again, Grandfather?”
A fond smile, and the old man reached out to gently smooth the boy’s hair back down. “Only if you promise me you’ll go to sleep after.” The boy nodded eagerly and settled down in the crook between the wall and the bed as his grandfather picked up the book from the bedside table. Settling it on his thighs, the old man opened it and began to read.
“Once, a long, long time ago, there was a young girl with hair as dark as night, and a soul as white as snow...”
The first fingers of dawn’s light crept across the worn parchment page, selecting words one by one to bring out of shadow. As they sought the words hidden beneath his hand, the warmth of the sun on his bare skin gradually pulled the warrior from his slumber. Kyo Ruroni woke to find himself in the same position he had dosed off in: propped up in the crook between the wall and the rented bed, the small journal open on his thigh. He blinked once, twice, then slowly eased himself out of his corner, wincing as his stiff neck and shoulder protested the movement. Once standing, a yawn and a stretch had him feeling much better again, but he knew the stiffness would be with him throughout the day. In retrospect, he would have been much better off simply lying down; stiff muscles were not a good way to start off what was sure to be a long day of marching.
He went to the window and looked out over the plaza before the inn. Already there were lines of wagons and horses led up to the front of the building, lashed to posts as merchants wandered between them to check their wares and packs. The caravan that would leave from Akebono today would be the largest of the year; on the other end, the famous Market Festival of Ryuu-Tokai waited to make those merchants the richest they would be until the season ended. The sheer size of the caravan would no doubt attract attention along the road...but that was what hired swords were for. Kyo was heading to Ryuu-Tokai to meet an old contact of his grandfather’s; he might as well get paid along the way.
Turning away from the low but numerous rooftops of the small city, he stepped over the pack that laid on the floor and went to the wash basin. The face that looked back at him was young but weather-worn, with bright green eyes peering out from beneath shaggy brown hair that was badly in need of a cut. Running his hand through it, he paused to open and close his fist slowly, the abnormally darkened, too-smooth skin pulling tight over his knuckles. He would have to be sure to get it cut once they arrived in Ryuu-Tokai.
As the hour wore on, he began to gather his things. He pulled a green tunic over his head, tugging the strings that bound the small v in the collar tight but not tying them. Then came the armor. The chain-mail backed leather cuirass went on quickly, after hundreds of times doing exactly that, and equally practiced motions had his pauldrons attached. A short ten minutes had his bag sorted and packed, with his extra clothing, his food, water, mess kit, flint, sleeping roll, and map
. He set the bag aside, strapped his dirk to his hip, and turned to his sword.
The hand-and-a-half blade leaned in the corner of the room nearest the bed, its brown leather baldric hanging limply to the ground. He picked it up now, unsheathing it with a sweep of his arm, and held the steel to the light. It was an old sword, owned first by his great-grandfather, but it had been crafted by a master and had been well-cared for since. The blade was still straight, without notches or rust, honed until it gleamed with a deceptively beautiful light. And in the center of the blade, close to where it met the hilt, a diamond-shaped chip of polished onyx was set, visible on both sides. It was the only distinctive quality about the otherwise plain weapon, and it was his favorite.
Kyo sat on the edge of the bed with the sword across his knees and a whetstone in his hand, and there he sat until the sun was well over the horizon. Once he had decided that the first rush of merchants was probably finished, he re-sheathed his sword and slipped the baldric over his head, tightening the belt across his chest. He pulled on his gauntlets and tightened the attached vambraces around his forearm, and then there was only one last thing to do.
The journal still sat open on the bed. He sighed, picked it up, and placed the golden chain between the pages to mark where he was and closed it. The small pack on the left side of his belt was the perfect size to fit the book, and there he stowed it. Checking one last time to make certain he hadn’t left anything behind, he pulled his bag onto his back and left the room.
He trotted down the stairs and entered the inn’s main room. Sitting in the corner by the door was Isran, the man in charge of keeping the ledger for the caravan. On the table before him was a thick book, in which he marked the names and goods of each individual who joined. Many of the cargo
spaces were empty beside names; it would seem that Kyo wouldn’t be the only non-merchant joining the trip.
As he approached, he caught Isran eying the hilt poking over his shoulder warily before his gaze moved to his face. Kyo didn’t smile, but he did nothing to be threatening.
“Are you one of Irithoi’s boys?”
Kyo gave a slight nod. “He said you would need some extra hands on the way to Ryuu-Tokai.”
“There’s a heavy haul this year.” The name of Isran’s brother didn’t seem to set him at ease any, but he was being cordial enough. He sat forward and plucked the quill out of the ink pot. “So Irithoi’s getting jumpy. Could be we’ll have no trouble, but he figures better be safe than sorry. Frankly, me too.” He glanced up, poised to write. “Name?”
“Irithoi’s already worked out your payment?”
The warrior nodded. It would be enough to restock once they arrived in the city, and maybe even buy a few nights’ stay at a nice inn.
“Well then, Kyo Ruroni,” Isran was scratching away in his book. “You’re all set.” He looked up. “Welcome to the caravan.”
The warrior nodded his thanks, turned, and went to take a seat at a table. The inn was crowded as members of the caravan came and went, and the innkeeper and several hands were weaving their way through the constantly moving crowd. When one passed close to his table and noted that nothing sat in front of the warrior but a book, she stopped and gave him a welcoming smile.
“I see you haven’t been helped yet, sir,” she said brightly, “Is there anything I can get you?”
Kyo gave her a quick glance before returning his eyes to his journal. “Just water, please.”
The woman hesitated, her smile faltering. “Er...water, sir?”
He gave her another glance, this one a bit more pointed than the last. “Yes.” he said. “Water.”