His pack was heavy. The sun was high in the sky, midday, and Haaru had been walking since dawn. The ache at the base of his back had begun and his feet needed a short break, but he kept on. He’d been walking for years and knew his body well. Another hour wouldn’t change anything, especially since he’d found a forest path where the trees shaded the sun’s rays. The air was thick and a sheen of sweat made his clothes cling to his skin. This climate wasn’t new to him despite having left the thin mountain air only two weeks prior.
The hour passed and he felt a new ache begin. The ache caused by the weight of his pack. It was time for lunch. He searched a little more and found a trickling stream. He removed his pack by squatting until the earth took its weight. Then he pulled from the large bag his lunch. Roasted fowl, two pears, and a handful of mushrooms. He removed his shoes and carefully tied them to the bag then climbed atop a large stone where he could place his feet in a small pool interrupting in the stream. The water was cold and felt incredible. A chill ran through his bones despite the heat still swelling his muscles. He ate slowly. When he finished, he pulled himself up on the stone and laid across it. His feet dangled a few inches off the end, but he was comfortable enough to doze after closing his eyes.
He woke to the sounds of children. His muscles were stiff but no longer ached. He realized he’d slept too long as the sun was closer to the horizon. A child’s laughter rang through the trees and he looked for its source. Silence. He looped his arms through the straps and, with a grunt, relieved the earth from the weight of his pack. The laughter echoed again. He looked round, a smile creeping across his features. The laughter reminded his thick, cord-like muscles of his own childhood. When he would run endlessly, climb trees, swim for hours. More laughter and this time he grasped a direction. It was away from his path, but he packed food for a more days than was needed. A half day detour wouldn’t harm anything, so he followed the laughter.
The trees were thin and roots protruded from the ground making little room to move unhindered. The laughter grew louder as he walked and then soon danced around him. He could not see anyone, but they were near.
“Hello,” he called out.
“Hello,” a muffled sound responded a few inches from him.
He froze, slowly turned his head to the voice, and saw an old set of armor leaning against a tree. Mold had nearly covered its entire surface so it looked like part of the forest itself. Except its shape, and the voice inside it.
“Who are you?” The muffled voice said.
“I am Haaru,” he said, then ventured, “and what is your name?”
“Are you here alone, Shigeru?”
Haaru looked around but saw no one else. The laughter he’d heard earlier was gone. Only silence filled the still air.
“Why don’t you come out of there?”
No muffled answer came. A second later the breastplate opened with a squeak of metal on metal and a young boy came out. The armor returned to its resting state without a sound.
The boy smiled politely.
“Where are your friends?”
The boy pointed, “Mishi is over there.” Haaru followed the boys arm to see another moss-covered helmet leaning against a tree. Half of the armor was missing. “And Koturo is there,” the boy said, pointing in another direction at yet another set of armor. “And Jensai, and Mido, and Deku, and-”
“How many of you are out here?” Haaru stopped the boy.
The boy shrugged as an answer.
“Where are your parents?”
“And where is home?”
“But that’s…” he paused. But that’s over three hundred miles from here, he thought. “How did you get here?” Haaru asked the boy.
“Orders from who?”
“General Xing,” the boy said pragmatically.
“How…” he paused. General Xing has been dead for 700 years. “…how long have you been here?”
“A long time,” a different voice said. Haaru turned to see another boy sitting on the metal legs of the suit of armor Shigeru had called Mido.
“How long is a long time?”
Mido sighed and leaned back against the armor but said nothing.
“We’ve forgotten.” Haaru looked over to find another young boy he assumed to be Deku.
“I see,” Haaru said. Around him were several young boys. All sitting or standing on a suit of armor. Some of which he hadn’t noticed during Shigeru’s introductions. “How many of you are here?” he asked again.
No one answered him. Perhaps they don’t remember that either. Haaru bent his knees until his pack rested on the ground. He dug through its contents until he found what he needed. A brush, ink, and a roll of parchment. He sat on the forest floor. “Would you mind telling me your story?” he asked as he readied the ink. He looked up to find every child had disappeared. “Shigeru?” he called but was met with only silence.
He remained seated as the sun retreated from the sky. Something within him knew this was where he was needed. He built a small fire and waited long into the night. His eyes grew heavy, and after some time he gave in and rested them for a moment. He almost didn’t notice the sleep pulling him toward unconsciousness, but before slipping away he jerked his eyes open to find himself surrounded by a crowd of young boys. They stood around the fire. Hundreds more were laced through the trees. Seen only by moonlight through the canopy.
“We will tell you our story,” Shigeru’s voice came from beside him.
Haaru gripped his brush and nodded for the boy to continue.