Shikanoko, unable to sleep, racked by pain and fever, walked day and night through the Darkwood. His flesh alternately froze and burned; it did not seem to belong to him. He floated outside his body, watching it sweat and shiver, wondering why it still clung to life. Often he hallucinated. The dead seemed to walk alongside him, haranguing and criticising him. Once he heard the horses’ shrill neighing, and did not know whether to run towards them or hide from them. His weapons, and the bag holding the broken mask and Kiyoyori’s sword, grew heavier. One day he simply let his own sword and the bow and quiver fall to the ground. He could not imagine ever using them again. The following day he was tortured by the smell of death. I am rotting away , he thought. It is all over . He leaned against the smooth trunk of a young beech tree, and slid slowly down it until he was sitting in the dried leaves at its foot. The forest, in high summer, reverberated around him with bird calls and insect cries. Once he had had loved that sound, had known every bird. Now it was an unpleasant clamour that made his head ache.
He had buried his head in his arms but now a sudden strange sound, a kind of rough bark, made him look up. A crafted animal, a sort of wolf, stood before him. He saw the flash of its lapiz blue eyes, and the dull gleam of its cinnebar lips. The clarity of the hallucination and his fever filled him with despair.
Then the false wolf spoke in a thick, halting voice. ‘Welcome home,’ it said, and Shika knew where he was and where the stench of rot and decay came from. It was over a year since he had ridden away with Akuzenji, the King of the Mountain, but now he had come back, to the hermit sorcerer, Shisoku.
It watched him struggle to his feet and then turned and padded stiffly away. He followed it, across the stream, past the carvings, the drying skins, the piles of bones, the live and dead animals, to the hut beneath the pawlonia tree.
It stopped in front of the door. ‘Master!’ it called. The vowels in its speech were clear but it could not articulate the consonants: Ma-er!
Shisoku came out of the hut, shading his eyes with one hand.
‘Shikanoko? Why have you come back? What have you done?’
Shika dropped the bag as Shisoku approached him. It lay on the ground like a dead bird, the hilt of the sword protruding from it.
‘What is this? Whose sword was this? Nothing should be put in the same bag as the mask? Where is the mask?’
‘It is broken,’ Shika heard himself say.
‘Aaargh!’ Shisoku screamed like the mother of a dead child. ‘It cannot be broken. No human power can hurt it. How did it happen?’
He drew the two pieces out and wept over them.
Shika tried to explain. ‘It was the horses, they attacked me, not their fault, my fault.’
Shisoku’s face was distorted by rage and grief. Without saying another word he rushed back into the hut. Shika sank to the ground. His teeth clashed against each other as the fever sent violent shudders through him.
‘Are you sick?’ the false wolf said. ‘Master, he’s sick.’
‘Let him die,’ Shisoku called from inside. ‘He destroyed my gift, my creation. All the power of the forest could have been his, and he threw it away.’
The false wolf called again. ‘Master, help him!’ and it began to lick Shika’s face with a tongue that felt like a human’s.
The sorcerer appeared again. ‘How extraordinary,’ Shika heard him say. ‘The creature feels sorry for him. Maybe I should too. Yes, I suppose I must.’ He knelt next to Shika and felt his forehead, then, none too gently, examined the broken arm.
While Shika wept tears of pain, Shisoku disappeared and after what seemed like an eternity, was again kneeling beside him, making him drink some potion. It dulled his senses enough for Shisoku to be able to align the ends of the broken bone.
He longed for sleep, for oblivion but every time he closed his eyes he believed he was dead and in hell, burning in fire, pierced by swords, knives, arrows and thorns, tormented by visions of demons and unquenchable thirst. He saw, over and over again, the horses’ huge teeth as they tore into him, and his body arched and twisted as he felt again the hammer like blows of their hooves.
Liquid poured from his body, both sweat and tears, the waters of remorse.
At one stage he dreamed Lady Tora came to him. ‘Are you alive or dead?’ he tried to ask her, but she laid her cool fingers against his burning lips and silenced not only speech, but thought too.
Then finally he slept, maybe for days. All that time the false wolf did not leave his side.
When he woke, he was inside the hut; he heard Shisoku say, ‘It has become attached to him. It’s the first time something like that has happened. I did not expect it. Even I have never inspired affection in my creations.’
‘You are a greater sorcerer than you think,’ a woman replied. Shika turned his head slightly and saw it was indeed Lady Tora. She went on. ‘Perhaps it is because you bestowed the power of speech on it. How did you achieve that?’
Shisoku laughed. ‘I gave it the tongue I cut from a human head, and I built speaking cords from gossamer and sinews.’
‘And the head? Whose was that?’
‘There have been plenty of dead between Miyako and Minatogura in the last year. This was a Kakizuki warrior who fled into the forest and died of his wounds. I came upon him while he was still fresh enough to use. That’s his skull on the wall.’
Shika could see the new white skull grinning vacantly. Next to him the false wolf whined.
‘Shikanoko is awake,’ Lady Tora said.
They both looked in his direction. Their shapes were outlined against the flames of the fire and the candles round the altar. He saw the huge swell of Tora’s belly and remembered what she had told him, that she would give Kiyoyori more sons. Whosever child it was, it was very close to birth.
‘Shisoku was extremely angry with you,’ Lady Tora said, ‘But he has forgiven you, now.’
‘I have?’ the hermit queried.
‘Either you have or you soon will. But Shikanoko should tell us what happened. See if you can get up,’ she said to him.
He struggled to his feet and, leaning on each of them, went outside. They led him to the pawlonia tree and, sitting between them in its shade, he related everything, from the blinding of Sesshin, their flight into the Darkwood, their capture by his uncle Sademasa, who handed them over to the monk Gessho, the knowledge Sesshin had passed over to him, the winter spent at Ryusonji with the Prince Abbot.
‘There was an uprising,’ he said. ‘Well, it was started by the Prince Abbot who sent his men to arrest the Crown Prince, but, afterwards, it was said that Momozono rebelled against his father. He died but his son escaped. I was sent to find him and bring his head back to the capital. I caught up with him, and Akihime, the Autumn Princess, on the way to Rinrakuji.’
‘Ah,’ Lady Tora said. ‘Now I begin to understand.’
‘I killed two men who were about to violate her and the young Emperor, for he truly is the Emperor, you know. Everything recognises him. I had two werehawks with me and they knew him at once. I called them Kon and Zen. Zen tried to fly back to Ryusonji and Kon killed him. We rode on towards Rinrakuji, but we were stopped at a crossroads by a spirit. It was Lord Kiyoyori.’
‘So he is dead?’ Tora said, in a small voice.
‘I called him back,’ Shika said, remembering the immense power that he drawn on, a power that had led him into pride and arrogance and betrayed him. ‘His spirit entered the unborn foal within the body of my mare, Risu.’
‘He drove the horses to attack you?’ Lady Tora said.
‘Yes, and that is how the mask was broken.’
He fell silent, and then said, ‘The sword is Kiyoyori’s. It is beyond repair too.’
‘Nothing is beyond repair for Shisoku,’ Tora said. ‘Even if the results are sometimes unexpected, like this false wolf that has attached itself to you.’
It must recognise my falseness, Shikanoko thought. We are two of a kind. But his confession was not finished yet.
‘We went to Akuzenji’s old hut. I was planning to bring them here to hide them.’
‘The last place you would expect to find the Emperor of the Eight Islands,’ Shisoku muttered.
Shika went on steadily, ‘But being in the hut, alone with the Autumn Princess, who I thought was the one meant for me, I put on the mask and found myself under the Prince Abbot’s sway. I blame only myself. I thought I was all powerful…’
'Aha!’ Shisoku said, ‘He could teach you many things but he could not teach you brokenness.’
Shika wished he would stop interrupting. Every time he had to start again it was harder.
‘The Prince Abbot told me to do what I liked with her. I did. But she was to become a shrine maiden. I thought she wanted me but…She fled during the night. In the morning he told me to kill Yoshimori, and I was on the point of doing it, when the werehawk and the horses attacked me. When I came to, I was alone and the mask was broken.’
‘The gods must have been enraged against you both,’ Tora said.
After a few moments Shika said, ‘The werehawk, Kon, was turning gold. I remember seeing the sun on its plumage.’
‘It must be transforming into a houou,’ Shisoku said. ‘It is the sacred bird that appears in the land when the ruler is just and blessed by Heaven.’
‘I have to find him and restore him to the throne.’
‘These are concerns of warriors and noblemen,’ Shisoku said. ‘Leave them to it and become a mountain sorcerer like me.’
‘I have already vowed to do it,’ Shika replied. ‘If Heaven’s will is ignored, all beings will suffer, in city and mountain, forest and village. There will be droughts and floods, famine, battles and massacres. I was a warrior first, long before I became a sorcerer. Restore the mask for me, and the sword, and, when they are ready, I will begin my search for Yoshimori.’
‘Nothing will change until your power matches the Prince Abbot’s,’ Lady Tora said. ‘You are going to have to confront him and overcome him physically and spiritually. At the moment you can do neither. You have no men, no followers, not even a horse. In your first challenge to him, you failed. He forced you to make a terrible mistake, from which you may never recover. The horses and the werehawk, which should have been your allies, turned against you. You have a lot to undo and even more to learn.’
‘How long will it take you to repair the mask and the sword?’ Shika asked Shisoku.
‘When you are ready they will be ready,’ the old man replied grudgingly.
‘Will it be days or weeks?’
‘More likely years,’ said the sorcerer.
‘I can’t wait that long,’ Shika cried, his impatience signalling he was recovering.
Lady Tora said, ‘There will be plenty to occupy you. As well as all you have to learn, you have to bring up my sons.’
‘That will teach you something,’ Shisoku murmured.