The rumors of Irontown is that a demon lurks there. It walks and talks like a man.
Ashitaka has no concern for being named a warrior. A dissenter. A heathen and a terrible menacing stain upon the Emperor's rule.
He will befriend man, beast and spirit if it means everyone can heal.
If it means he can love San and grow old with her.
"How is she?" Lady Eboshi murmurs. The booming noises of the forge in the distance. "Your precious wolf-girl?"
They sit together on the crates full of rice, unmoved to everything happening around them.
Toki and four other brothel-women pass by, gossiping, hoisting up the new and lighter rifles. Ashitaka narrowly avoids a rifle-barrel to his face, ducking low. He croaks out a laugh as one of the women frantically, apologetically bows him and to Lady Eboshi.
"She is carrying a child inside her," Ashitaka murmurs back. The women go hushed, listening in.
Lady Eboshi's brow furrows.
"Then you have received a gift, Ashitaka. I hope you realize that."
"Now, Ashitaka—don't you be letting her do all of the work!" Toki interrupts. She plants her hands on her hips. "A baby is serious!"
"Despite our past, I would welcome her among us. You know I can promise her safety, Ashitaka."
Lady Eboshi primly folds her hand over her empty kimono-sleeve. A brilliant, bright red clothed over silk-white and coal-black.
She's been missing that arm for over three years.
"There are many midwives in Irontown who can help with the delivery. You both can raise her child here."
Ashitaka contemplates this and San's own words to him long ago.
I will never forgive the humans.
"San does not wish to leave the forest," he informs Lady Eboshi. "I must respect this. I know the wolves can look out for her when I am not there." Ashitaka nods respectfully as she offers him a cup of water, taking it from her hand.
"That's ridiculous," Toki grumbles.
"How far along is she?"
Ashitaka opens his mouth, interrupted by Gonza. He calls out to Lady Eboshi about the lepers requesting her presence.
"I must see to my people," Lady Eboshi declares, standing and smiling as Ashitaka joins her.
"I do wonder, Ashitaka… can you truly live between Irontown and the forest?"
Her smile hardens when Ashitaka frowns.
"Perhaps one day… you must choose."
Ashitaka occasionally sees the ape tribe.
They pelt stones as oxen-drivers and wagoners navigate the darkness.
He tries to speak with them. Reason with them about how humans can coexist with them peacefully. The apes retreat into the mountain whenever Ashitaka shows his face. There hasn't been an attack since the Forest Spirit removed Ashitaka's curse.
Within the darkness, he spies the night-glow of a wolf's eyes.
Yakul curiously lifts his head. Ashitaka dismounts from his red elk, coming closer to one of San's wolf-brothers.
It's a clear, cool evening of stars. No winds.
The grassy lands outside Irontown's barricade stenches heavily of manure.
"San…" Each word comes out as a deep and sharp growl. Ashitaka's heart clenches. "She is losing the whelp…"
He needs to leave. Right now.
"Take Yakul back to Irontown. Keep him safe," Ashitaka orders Kohroku who nervously stammers but obeys.
He leaps onto the back of San's gigantic wolf-brother, reaching into his silvery fur.
He knows gods do not permit this.
Touching a god is a sin.
The wolf rumbles open his jaws, but allows Ashitaka to climb him.
They plunge deep into the nearest forest, racing through the black pines and katsura.
Ashitaka glimpses what must be villages as they head to a clearing. Swampy, water-logged ground. Bare trees. Not too far, a village with reed-and-grass huts. It seems abandoned. Older than the first Irontown.
This runs through Ashitaka's mind until he feels a piercing-hot sensation hits his leg.
Ashitaka grunts, tumbling off San's wolf-brother and striking the dirt hard. Every muscle inside him thumps with agony.
He rolls, helplessly clutching his leg embedded with an arrow.
Ashitaka can hear the wolf snarling to its enemies.
Another arrow thunks, flying out, impaling the chest of San's wolf-brother.
More arrows fly into the night.
That's when Ashitaka passes out.
Voices lure Ashitaka into consciousness. Or so he believes.
He cannot identify who they are. It can't be Irontown. It can't. They wouldn't attack him. Ashitaka wants to roll over, but finds himself unable to.
His muscles feel paralyzed.
The swollen-pink wound from the arrow tingles as if repeatedly stung by brambles.
"The demon of Irontown…"
What appears to be an old woman leans over him. A wise woman.
Ashitaka remembers the one from his village. He was a prince, yes… and he was exiled. Ashitaka felt guilt for it but he was relieved. He did not truly belong. He did not wish to have his life planned and to follow his duties when his soul longed for a richer meaning. To help others who need it.
Ashitaka is in the village left full of ruins and hungry shadows.
Who are they?… Are they the original descendants?…
What did they coat the arrowhead with?… …
His leg burns. Ashitaka's heart pounds erratically against his rib-cage but it's all numbness confining him.
"No, no…" Different voices rise and fall. Ashitaka's vision blurs on the villager's faces. "The wolf princess may hunt us…"
"Kill her too…"
Ashitaka tries to clutch his fingers. Slowly, so slowly, he regains himself.
"What do we do with him…"
San needs him. Ashitaka weakly pushes himself up on an elbow, peering through the hut door and groaning breathlessly.
Nausea churns within him.
San's wolf-brother rots under the moonlight, its jaws locked. Flies crawl over the wide, dead eyes. Blood dries in the silvery, matter fur. There's hundreds of arrows protruding from its hindquarters. From its skull and stomach.
"His arm is still marked… look…"
A villager notices him, pushing Ashitaka flat-down. Ashitaka's palm and his right forearm still mottled in a pale purple.
Ashitaka feels more hands on him. They seek his chest and shoulders, pushing down, keeping him from escaping as he writhes under them and groans. Ashitaka blinks rapidly as his surroundings grey and whirl unpleasantly. Lights dot around him.
"Don't touch it…"
One of the villagers holds out a sword-blade.
"We must cut it off…"
His eyelids flutter shut.
Ashitaka waits to pass out again, hoping for the numbness to return before he's dismembered, and then hears strangled screaming through the hut's door. Their voices panic. Ashitaka reopens his eyes to focus on a crystal dagger.
"Rest, Ashitaka," San mumbles, gazing down into his pinched, whitened face.
Ashitaka wheezes. He's lying in the sweet-smelling moss of San's forest. Everything so green and familiar at dawn. San tears apart a strip of cooked animal-meat, placing it into her mouth and chewing a little. Her wolf-brother prowls behind her.
"We found you. You're safe."
"San…" Ashitaka whispers in earnest. "San, you saved me…"
She says nothing, pressing her lips to his and dropping the chewed meat into Ashitaka's mouth.
He chews and swallows.
San does this again, murmuring Ashitaka's name, helping Ashitaka upright and propping him against a fallen, broken tree-trunk. The numbness in Ashitaka's muscles fade. His leg has been washed and bandaged loosely. The arrow missing.
Ashitaka gasps softly, his eyes rounding. His hand covers San's abdomen.
"I bled," San admits. "I didn't lose it. I thought I would."
Relief doesn't come. Ashitaka shakes his head.
"I wasn't here for you," he says quietly, glancing to San's remaining wolf-brother who huffs. "I should have. I should have save your brother. He was trying to bring me to you and they killed him."
"That wasn't your fault, Ashitaka."
San has never lied to him. She is too wild and tenderhearted for human manipulation.
"I am never leaving you again. Never." Ashitaka promises this, imagining him and San asleep in the high grass. White flower-buds decorating her brown, tangled hair. "My head and my heart cannot be in two places at once… so I chose you…"
Ashitaka kisses her breast, wrinkling down the fabric as San grins tearfully.
She kisses Ashitaka's jaw, exposing her teeth on his skin and nipping lightly.
Ashitaka's thumb sweeps over her nipple. Milky, warm fluid dribbles out. Ashitaka pinches San's nipple softly, watching it pinken and firm against his fingers, basking in San's growling-loud moans. He licks the fluid off.
"I chose you, San…"
"Ashitaka," San whines, crawling into his lap and rubbing herself on him. Mingling her scent into his.
Ashitaka buries himself into San's breasts, nuzzling her and inhaling. Leaving kisses to her nakedness.
They can forget their grief and celebrate their joy.
The meaning Ashitaka seeks… it's them.
It's always been them.