Very soon after we entered the caverns, we had our first obstacle. There was a large growth of fungi on the floor of the cavern. It was a weird orangey color and smelled like a human had slept in a pile of wet rotting leaves. The smell made it hard to concentrate. Hekari suggested that me lead our horse along the narrow strip of open floor. The maid Shasuki offered to lead the Princess’ horse for her. I’m pretty good with animals, too but between my pony and my dog, I had enough. Hekari quickly traveled the pathway. Tatsuoh went next. It was difficult to see and the footing was slippery and uneven, so it wasn’t until Gami-Gami, Mir’Itus and I were almost even with him did we realize that he was in trouble. He had obviously lost his footing and slid into the fungus.
There were tendrils waving in the air and as I watched, one started to wrap around his neck. Gami flicked out with her blade and the tendril dropped at Tatsuoh’s feet in two pieces. “Perhaps we can help, yes, oh Lion man Tat-swoll?” I tried to smile. “Oh, no no. I am fine Mistress Rat. Thank you. Just a few mushrooms….”
And he swung his blade down at the tendrils twitching at his feet. “You sure there, man? Me — I — see blood. Smell blood of you and thinking we can helps.” I stood there and watched him fight for a few seconds. He did not respond. I shrugged and moved on. Gami stayed and sliced a few more tendrils and then she had to move on to make room for the others. We gathered at the arch of the next room — it was blessedly fungus free.
It wasn’t until Nya came along, at the end of the line, that he would accept help. She threw a rope and tried to pull him free. It wasn’t until me, Gami-Gami and the others lent a hand that Tatsuoh broke free of the fungus. “You are, honored Tat-swoll, hurt. I can heal, yes.” I bowed very low to the ground. And although he was being held up by Nya, he refused! Humans.
We moved into the next room — the one with the nook. It also had a healing stone. I had never seen one before although I have read about them. Hekari showed him how to use the stone. The look of relief on his face was difficult to see. Here’s a man with serious wounds and he would rather suffer than have my paws on him. I do not understand, but I should not be surprised. Nya has refused my help, too. Only the Princess has truly made me welcome. Although as I think on it, I do not think that I have touched the Princess either. Trying to heal humans….. I did not know it would be so hard. What if, when the time comes, I cannot help the humans? What will Grandpa say then?
Our start the next day was not as late as it could have been. Shasuki, number one maid, was sent to the market to buy many healing potions. The human child, Hekari, sulked over her breakfast porridge. “What is it, small one?” Mir’Itus looked concerned.
Gami-Gami put her spoon down. “You do not like the food, child? This is fine food. Better than much that is eaten daily throughout the kingdom. Eat and think of those less fortunate.” She turned to me. “That is what honorable abbot would say to me when I complained.”
I laughed at her serious expression. “It help, these word of wisdom from abbot? Food taste yum-yum then?”
“No, not really.” And she laughed, too.
Mir’Itus was looking seriously at Hekari. “It is not the food,” he muttered and then spoke up. “It is not the food, is it?” He paused. “You do smell better. That will help you in the wilds.”
“No it won’t! And I hate baths. I’m never taking another one. Ever.” Neiki overheard and sat down at the table. “Mir’Itus speaks truly, child. Beasts can smell us from many leagues off, if we have not bathed. Now, you will not alert them to your presence.” Hekari frowned. “You don’t smell. Or, I mean, you smell good. Like the ocean.” Neiki smiled and patted the child’s arm. “You do too. Now.”
We set off east, toward the caverns with the child Hekari in the lead. The road was wide enough, near Shiro Kuni, that we were able to amble along in no real order. Tatsuoh and Nya rode near the back in silence. Gami-Gami rode between me and them, with Mir’Itus on my far side.
We stopped at mid-day for a meal. Shazuki made a hot stew for the Princess. I read from one of my books and ate a strip of jerky while G’dah’la grazed in the grass. Hekari lay nearby. “That’s a paper history, isn’t it?” She spoke in Nezumi and there is no word for book in Nezumi, since I am one of a few in the tribes who read. “It is indeed, young one. Can you understand its story-picture-markings?” She shook her head. “No one has ever taught me the art of understanding.”
I switched to English, where it is easier to talk about reading and writing. “There are worlds to explore inside a book, child. You should take some of the coin you make and um, learn read good-good. OK?” Hekari grinned. “I have never made so much in my life! Where to spend it all? A silver a day and just for leading people where I go all the time!”
“Oh yes, I know of his exploits. His treasure, it was lost long ago, when his ship was attacked by the full Imperial fleet. It took an armada to take him down.” I rummaged through my book sack. “Here. Here’s a picture of him.” I showed the portrait to Hekari.
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “He’s just a man. I thought he might be part dragon or something.”
Children. ‘Just a man.’ As if such a career, such daring and adventure could be contained in three words! Fumoki was so much more and of his treasure is here….. If he buried even a fraction of his riches here, in these mountain passes, then the historical value of them is impossible to calculate. I looked down at the portrait.
The sound of breaking camp roused me from my reverie. Back on the horse and into the caverns we go!
I could hear Hekari talking with Tatsuoh up ahead. “I want to head in and get to the healing stone. There’s a nook there that could serve as a good sleeping place.” Mir’Itus noticed me listening. I shook my head. “English weird language, yes? What is this nook?” That kept him busy for a good ten minutes and allowed me time to consider where a man might hide a treasure and hide it well enough that no one could find it for 200 hundred years.