Legend of the Tengu Prince (Excerpt): Chapter One “Mountain Goblin”
The spring morning calls
into the haunted forest
Year of the Dragon–AD 1484
Men had set a death kinjiru that forbade women to set foot on sacred ground. Yet for the past eight years, I, Tomiko Hino crept in secret beneath the grandfather cryptomeria, the giant evergreens that covered the sloping sides of Mount Haguro. Each spring, when the dance of the dawn goddess lured Amaterasu back from winter exile, my family made their pilgrimage to the smallest of the three Brother Mountains.
Through the dense branches that grew high above my head, shifting sunlight filtered through the morning fog. I closed my eyes hoping to hear what the god of the mountain would tell me. All the times before, he had spoken through whispers in the wind or the chilled dampness that kissed my cheeks. But this morning the god of Haguro Mountain spoke through the voice of the forest itself with sharp, crisp snaps and pops in the crack of high branches that echoed against the whirring wing-beats of a crane in flight.
Elegant neck extended the white bird with black tipped feathers rose in a graceful glide from the enclosure of trees toward the green canopy high above my head. The bird’s voice quavered like a haunting trumpet of protest. But at what was it complaining?
Near the tree where the crane took flight, I spied a raven perched on a lower branch. Its ebony feathers glistened like emeralds in the early morning light, as if jewels shined beneath the dark pinions.
“Did you frighten the crane?” I smiled as I spoke to the sassy bird, pretending it could actually understand my words.
Head cocked to one side, the raven waited as one shrewd eye watched me. The next instant the brute flew at my face. The tip end of one black wing flicked my nose as it soared by sending a shock wave of surprise rolling down my spine to quake in the pit of my stomach.
I threw up my hands, beating wildly at the raven’s sharp beak that snapped close to my ear. Then in a swooping motion, the black bird doubled back, diving straight for me again, but this time it grabbed on the narrow slope of my shoulder.
Startled more than afraid, I shrank away trying unsuccessfully to shove the beast away from me while the peppery scent of pine needles filled my mouth, nose and eyes. When the raven refused to move, I stood trembling with expectation waiting for its sharp talons to rip into my flesh. They never did.
“Wha-what, who, who are you?” The words wrapped around a suppressed scream that scraped its way up my throat. “Are you an emissary to the god of the mountain?” My voice squeaked.
As if in reply, the raven leaned its head down close to my face as if to stare directly into my very soul. Its almond-shaped eye, the color of green jade, appeared more human than fowl, giving the terrifying impression of a person trapped inside the bird’s black-feathered body.
What a horrible image. I wanted to scream.
Then just as suddenly as it had landed on my shoulder, the raven lifted off into the air, its earthy scent blowing in my face as it did so. A short distance from where I stood it settled on the forest floor.
Amidst a clamor of loud squawking from the fiend’s throat, a gathering of green mist began to form around the raven’s claws. In a matter of moments, the green mist shifted and settled like vapors from a magician’s spell cast in the purple dawn.
I stood trembling from head-to-toe, puffs of panic escaping with my breath while I waited too astonished to speak or move. Slowly the mist cleared, evaporating into thin air as it did. In place of the raven, a man-like creature stood.
A circle of gold lay atop the man-thing’s black hair that feathered across elfish-point ears. Its hair, like the raven’s feathers flecked with glistening emerald lights. The creature’s jewel-green eyes sparkled with mischief above a beak-shaped nose that jutted from the center of its scarlet-blush face where a smirk pulled at its lips. Blue-black wings with crimson tips folded against its broad shoulders, where muscled arms lay crisscrossed against its chest. Powerful legs stretched from a human torso ending in bare claw-like feet.
Seeing the impossible creature, I began to tremble so hard, my teeth chattered together. If I had not been so before, I now had a healthy dose of respect for all the unseen spirits that my auntie had told me wavered in the air around unsuspecting humans. I lowered my eyes toward the ground, understanding enough to know, there were times when stubborn arrogance became little more than stupidity and I had no wish to bring an entire army of the dreadful beings down around me.
While I stared at the dirt and moss beneath my feet, my thoughts spun like a whirlpool in my mind. This was truly a haunted woods or else I had gone completely mad. Each time before when I had come to the forbidden mountain, I wished for its god to speak words of enchanted wisdom to my heart. I now began to wonder if it had sent a demon to torment me instead.
Shivering in the chilled morning air, my feet were the first to move out of the paralyzed terror that had momentarily taken me over. Not wasting another moment, I spun around in the opposite direction. My feet poised to flee back for safety toward the base of the mountain where the village lay in safety below. But before I could escape the shadow of the trees, invisible fingers dug into my arms, forcing me around, back toward the open glade where the man-thing stood.
“You have nothing to fear from me, Little One.” The creature’s voice held a pleasant warble as if the man’s voice and the bird’s song mingled as one. “I am Sojobo, King of the Tengu,” it said. “Haguro Mountain is my home.”
Curiosity tore at my fear, giving me the courage to lift my eyes toward the bird man. Was this what the god of the mountain looked like? Had I finally come face-to-face with him?
A good-natured smirk tugged at the birdman’s sensuous lips making my face flush hot. I quickly directed my attention toward the scaly bark of nearby tree as if there was something altogether interesting about it that I must examine this very moment.
In the safety of Tsuruoka Castle, my home by the Sea of Japan, I had heard tales of demons and mountain goblins such as this one, again told to me by my auntie. At mention of the roguish imps, I had then shivered with delight. Now as I faced this creature that was clearly not of the world that I had grown up in, a compelling sort of anxious exhilaration tingled through my blood. I was both exhilarated and terrified all in one breathless moment.
“I know you.” King Sojobo narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to one side as if probing my thoughts. His pointing finger twitched toward my nose. “You have come here many times before.” His grin widened. “One so young and brave could not have missed my notice.”
I drew in a deep breath to steady my voice. Still it cracked with nervous tension when I dared to speak. “You, you have been watching me?” My gaze shot warily from one side of the tree-walled glade to the other.
What must the King think of my boldness in coming here? I winced at the implications.
For the first time I considered what painful retribution might come from my sacrilege in climbing the forbidden mountain. I stiffened waiting for the worst possible consequences for my illicit actions.
To my amazement, King Sojobo doubled over with irreverent laughter while the invisible fingers that nudged my shoulders gave me a playful pinch. The next instant, the invasive hands shoved me aside, releasing their grip so suddenly that I stumbled forward. Grabbing wildly for some type of perch, I tore open the palms of my hands against the rough bark of the closest tree.
“What do you want from me?” I cried out, both alarmed and annoyed.
My bleeding palms stung bringing angry tears to my eyes while warm breath from someone who I could not see stirred near my ears pungent with pine scent that also tickled my nose. Invisible arms folded around me. Strong, yet gentle, they pulled me close. I hugged myself as a shield from the impertinent creature’s advances. My fingers clenched in fists pressed close to my sides.
Again, the infuriating smirk crossed the tengu’s face while his material body, at least, remained several feet away from me. Then he winked playfully and said, “I see you doubt my sincerity, Kume-san.”
I blinked in reply, having no words to answer. How did he know my name?
King Sojobo sighed, his scarlet face giving the pretense of sadness. He shrugged, raising his hands in what seemed like mock resignation.
“I shall cause you no further discomfort.” He shook his head.” Farewell, Kume-san. Caw! Caw!” The voice of the raven sprang from his throat followed by a shower of emerald-gold mist that swirled from the ground up beneath the goblin’s feet.
Then he vanished as quickly as he had come leaving only a tail of the shimmering green mist to hang in the space where he had stood. The mist slowly turned brittle, like glitter tossed in the air slowly dispersing in the chilled morning breeze. I heard a loud squawk above my head and looked up to see the raven disappearing over the treetops.
Leave. Leave now! My mind screamed for me to react.
I spun around and ran fast as my frantic feet would carry me through tangled underbrush, around looming trees. Each step a blurred dance of forward thrusts and sideways maneuvers.
In my frantic escape I heard the rustling sound of something weaving a path in and out of the scrub brush that scratched my ankles with itching wounds. I looked down to see the pointed face of a fox peeked out from the tangled branches of a bush with bright red berries as I ran by.
The vixen was keeping pace with me, but why? Again, I trembled at the all the awful implications of what that might mean. When I saw the flick of vixen’s nine tails, I was truly terrified. I knew fox spirits possessed magic, though each one had its own special type. I also knew by the number of tails that this one possessed it was very old and very powerful.
I knew to climb the sacred mountain carried weighty consequences, of this I had already witnessed. Yet the appearance of the fox spirit, made me tremble with dread so terrible I almost lost my footing. It took all my concentration not to trip as I zigzagged through the towering bodies of trees.
It was following me that was certain, keeping perfect pace with my every movement. My mind spun with speculation wondering what I could offer the spirit to keep in its good graces.
I found little comfort when I remembered that foxes were messengers of Inari, the benevolent goddess of rice. Though mostly a benign spirit, the fox could also be a seductive trickster as well, never a good sign in any case.
Breathe burned hot in my chest as I burst through the towering trees into a clearing. But I immediately skidded to a halt beside a pagoda that towered five stories from the ground toward its roof that curved up into the clouds. The pagoda was home to the five elements: earth, wind, fire, air and void.
My next step hovered beside one of 2,445 stone steps that led up to the top of the mountain. The path used by men, the only ones allowed to climb to the summit.
What made me stop was seeing one of the guardian priests of Sanshin Gosaiden Worship Hall of the Three Gods–that perched on the mountain’s peak. The priest was standing next to the pagoda.
My knees trembled at sight of the fighting pole tucked crosswise beneath his waist tie-belt. As if in slow agonizing motion, he turned, his gaze locking into mine. At that moment danger most perverse trapped me in its net.
“Amaterasu!” I gasped, slumping to my knees, forehead pressed in subjugation against the damp earth.
I was far more horrified by this human’s appearance than I had been only moments before when I witnessed King Sojobo in the flesh. Numb with fear, I waited for the priest’s fighting pole to crack hard against my head. It was what I deserved, of this I knew all too clearly.
At the gruesome image, my stomach lurched promising to release the breakfast of rice and sliced vegetables I had munched for breakfast earlier that morning.
“Did you see him?” The young man’s voice floated, soft on the morning breeze. It tickled my ear with its gentle, innocent tone.
I had seen no other person on the open steps, except for myself and the young priest. So whom did the he speak–surely not to a lowly female?
When no other voice answered him, I lifted my eyes, astonished to see the bamboo pole remained tucked at the priest’s side. I could see it there as clearly as I could see the beautiful smile on his face.
“Of whom do you speak?” I replied, my voice barely above a whisper.
“Why Sojobo-sama, King of the Tengu,” the priest exclaimed, sheer delight apparent in his tone. “You did see him, did you not?” A perplexed expression drew a frown between his brows.
“Ye-es, I saw him,” I answered.
Still uncertain, I slowly up pulled to a kneeling position. Fingers pinching nervously at the ground in front of my knees, my gaze caught in the priest’s mesmerizing eyes. My mind seemed lost in a fog of confusion except the lingering image of my cracked skull.
Much to my astonishment, the young priest knelt toward the ground. Placing a hand on one knee, he leaned toward me.
“It is a very good sign, you know.” His smile broadened, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “King Sojobo does not appear to just anyone. He is a very solitary and taciturn fellow from what I hear.”
In a movement graceful as a swan gliding across the silver surface of a lake, the priest took something from his robe pocket and placed it on the ground near his bent knee. He then bowed reverently toward my direction as if to the sacred Buddha.
When he rose to his feet, he said, smiling, “It is for you.” Then he turned and strolled soundless into the forest to disappear through a thicket of spruce trees.
Alone near the pagoda, I looked more closely at the place where the priest had stood only moments before. To my delight and amazement I saw a glistening jade egg cradled in tufts of grass. Scrolls of gold etched into the egg’s jeweled surface shined in the morning light. The gilded lines seemed to pulsate and move as if alive.
Curious to a fault, the terrors I had felt earlier melted almost completely away I scooted forward on bended knee. Unafraid, I lifted the egg to nestle it against my cheek. Through the warm shell I could swear I heard a heartbeat throb.
Prize in hand, I jumped to my feet and ducked beneath the sheltering trees. Better safe than sorry. No use pressing my luck. Careful and quiet as possible, I wound my way through the trees that ran beside the stone steps, keeping out of sight as I aimed for the splintered gate that led to the pilgrim’s inn.
Copyright © 2011 by Ledia Runnels
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