by Mark Patraw
Homepage: Mark's Art Page
Galford didn't move. He didn't know what was going on, but he hoped it was some awful nightmare. If Rimururu killed him, maybe he'd wake up and things would be right again. Any moment now, he'd feel the cold kiss of one of her icicles pierce his chest and he'd awaken covered with a sheen of sweat in his familiar bedroll. Anything was better than this madness.
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But it wasn't a dream. Rimururu pounced on him with all the force her little frame could muster. They both fell to the ground heavily, with Galford's body absorbing all the shock. His teeth clenched painfully together as her momentum sent them sliding across the grass. He didn't resist. He wouldn't fight her, he couldn't.
She straddled his chest, her breath labored, with her icy hands clamped around his throat. Her death grip grew tighter and tighter and Galford began to see spots. More tears poured from the corners of Rimururu's eyes and froze on her face. The sunlight caught these chips of ice and made her look like a shining star goddess. I'm being choked to death and I'm thinking about how beautiful the frost on her cheeks looks, Galford mused to himself as the world began to go gray. A bird flew overhead in the sky that was rapidly turning from blue to black. It made him think of Mamahaha, and then Nakoruru. What horrible thing had happened to her, and who had done it? His heartbeat pounded violently in his ears and his lungs felt like they were going to explode for want of air.
Suddenly, the pressure was gone and he could breathe again. He choked and coughed the air down in huge gulps. His lungs seemed bottomless; again and again he gorged them. The stench of the burnt corpse was still in the air, but now it was a welcome smell.
Rimururu collapsed on him sobbing, her dark, brown hair concealing her anguished face. It took some effort, but Galford got one of his leaden arms up in the air and he put it around her.
They lied there together like that for some time, both too weak to move. Konril slowly revolved around them, glitteringly silent as always, the trees reflected in the facets of the spirit's gemlike form.
Poppy appeared by Galford's side and rested her head on his chest. Her sad, blue eyes met his and she stared into his soul searching for answers. Poppy was just as confused as her master. She didn't know why Galford and Rimururu were fighting any more than he did.
"Poppy…" Rimururu whispered, cautiously reaching up to scratch the dog's ears, "I thought you were dead." She nestled her face into Poppy's side and continued to absently stoke her fur.
"What?! Why would Poppy be dead?" Galford demanded.
"Nothing makes sense anymore, Galford. After I found Nakoruru…" She began to sob again and shook her head back and forth.
Nakoruru. His strength returned enough for him to move, and he sat up, gently pushing both Rimururu and Poppy away as he did so. If Nakoruru was hurt or in trouble, he had to go to her, and he had to go to her NOW.
He grasped Rimururu by the shoulders, and looked into her wet, brown eyes.
"What happened, Rimururu? Is Nakoruru all right?"
"You really don't know, do you? She…you…" Rimururu lowered her head and stared at her legs, "You…or something pretending to be you…did very bad things to her. Awful things."
What awful things? Galford wanted to ask, but Ruoh's cursing interrupted them. He had finally managed to free himself from Rimururu's icy prison. He dusted himself off, favoring her with a look colder than anything she could create.
"Well, now that we're all chums again…would it bother you two terribly to tell me what the hell is going on?"
"I wish I knew, Ruoh, but I'm going to find out. Rimururu, you've got to tell me everything."
"Yes, do tell." Ruoh scowled as he brushed ice chips out of his hair and clothes.
Rimururu folded her legs around Poppy and continued to stroke her as she began to relate her tale. She didn't look at either of them; she spoke as though the dog was her only audience, and Poppy gladly ate up the attention, her tail thumping merrily away. Galford and Ruoh sat cross-legged on either side of her.
"I accompanied Grandfather and Grandmother on a trip to the market yesterday, but Nakoruru stayed home. When we got back later that evening…" Tears began to spill freely her eyes again as she continued, "The house had been vandalized, and we found Nakoruru curled up in a corner talking to herself, staring into space. Mamahaha, barely alive, was cradled in her arms. Her clothes were in tatters and she was badly bruised and beaten. She kept repeating your name over and over. 'Galford. Galford. Galford.' That's all we could get out of her for the first hour or two. Then slowly, she began to give us bits and pieces of what happened to her. She said you came to the house and said awful things, that you had killed Poppy. And then, you…" Rimururu raised her eyes to look at Galford, and then she cast them down again quickly, red coloring her cheeks. The sentence went unfinished.
"Grandfather went mad with rage. The few things that were left unbroken, he broke. Grandmother tried, but not even she could calm him. He vowed that he would hunt you down and destroy you before the sun set. I was just as furious, and I immediately set out to find you myself against everybody's wishes. I wanted you dead, Galford."
"And you almost got your wish." Galford said grimly. "What stopped you?"
"I…I wanted to kill you, but I couldn't. It was just…wrong. You didn't even fight back. And…I believed you when you said you didn't do it, even though I didn't want to believe it."
Ruoh grunted something insulting and Galford kicked him irritably.
Who could be impersonating him? Amakusa? No, he was dead, supposedly for good this time. Then who? Deep inside, Galford forced himself to wonder if he had somehow gone into a trance of some sort and had actually committed those heinous deeds himself. But that wasn't true either; the Iga's fortress was VERY well guarded. He could not have passed unnoticed; one of the sentries would have seen him and raised an alarm.
Galford stared between the trees and searched the forest. Was that evil doppelganger there even now, lurking in the tall shadows of the trees and laughing at him? It was all too possible. One thing was for certain, he was going to find this man or thing and exact some justice.
Rimururu, her story finished, noticed their unpleasant surroundings for the first time and gasped, holding her nose between two of her dainty, white fingers.
"Eeew! What stinks? And what is that…that…thing? And where did that hole come from?"
"We don't know, we had just discovered it when you attacked. Maybe it's related to what happened to Nakoruru, and maybe not. Is Nakoruru still at your home, Rimururu?"
"Yes, Galford. But she…HEY! You can't go there!"
Galford ignored her, he was up and rapidly marching in the general direction in which he thought Rimururu and her family's dwelling lied. He didn't know the way exactly, but Poppy did. Tree branches bit his face and raked long, red tracks in his arms, but he didn't even feel them.
"Grandfather has sent for several of our cousins and uncles to guard the house in case you return." Rimururu yelled after him, "They'll kill you on sight, Galford! They'll kill you before you even get to utter a word."
"I don't care, I have to see Nakoruru. I'm a ninja, we have ways of sneaking into places we're not wanted." He didn't stop. Rimururu, Ruoh, Poppy and Konril all raced after him.
Rimururu ran out in front of him and slammed her hands into his chest to stop him. He continued to walk, pushing her along with him. She dug her feet into the dead leaves and soft grass, and eventually slowed him enough to become an annoyance. He tried to push her aside, but she wouldn't let him.
He glared at her.
"Get out of my way!"
She grabbed him again and slapped him across the face with her free hand.
"Listen to me, Galford! Nakoruru DOES-NOT-WANT-TO-SEE-YOU-AGAIN…EVER!"
At last, she had reached him. The awful implications of her words hurt him more than a thousand razors drawn across bare flesh. Galford sunk to his knees in despair. He couldn't imagine life with Nakoruru hating him so; it was unbearable. Such a life didn't seem worth living, and it was so very, very unfair. He had done nothing, and yet the woman he loved now despised him. Tears stung his eyes.
"Oh, Rimururu, what am I going to do?" He pleaded helplessly.