“Well, I have done my duty,” Elder Ryosen told the leader of the guards as he bowed. “I bid you good day then.”
“Stay.” Said the guard leader- it was an order, not a request.
“Ahh…yes…” Said the old priest, glancing about nervously. The departure of the other guard left five remaining, each of them armored warriors in black who stood at the bridge entrance with swords at the ready. There were too many to fight or flee from, and all the priest had was his prayer beads and a small knife he had hidden beneath his robe, barely more useful than the beads.
His plan had certainly not worked out as he’d hoped, and now he had made things all the more difficult by getting himself ensnared in this trap. He would have done much the same were he in the samurai’s position, and likely had some time in the past. Now he would need to think quickly to have an answer ready when the guard returned.
It was the movement that caught Ryosen’s eye- a dark shape had appeared in the morning fog behind the guard who stood with his back to the direction Ryosen had come.
You haven’t lost your touch, Yamaguchi-san. Thought Ryosen with a hidden smile, and he reached into his robe for the knife.
Then, with the knife hidden in the folds of his robe, he suddenly grabbed his stomach and let out a loud moan.
In the moment that the startled guards were all focused on him, Jiro attacked. The old swordsman struck the guard he’d approached with a piece of wood, knocking him senseless and borrowing the guard’s sword.
Then, as attention now shifted to Jiro’s attack, Ryosen struck as well, plunging his knife into the gap where the front of the leader’s armor met the back. The man gasped, and feebly reached for his sword as he looked at Ryosen with anger, but the priest’s short blade was now driven up under his chin. The man died so quickly he wasn’t even able to get his sword from the sheath, but Ryosen finished the job for him.
Now it was two armed men against three- odds Ryosen liked much better indeed.
* * *
Masato watched as his master and the priest fought with the soldiers, staying low in the bushes with Taro as he’d been told. His hands were clenched in determination- it wasn’t going to be like last time, he was going to accomplish his mission.
As he watched, his sensei fought with two of the guards, parrying and weaving around their swords as they spread out to come at him from two sides. Jiro wasn’t armored, and they were, which meant that while he had speed and could avoid their blows, if they did hit he could quickly lose what advantage he had. Masato had to remind himself to breath as he watched his master barely escape death moment after moment.
The remaining guard was fighting with the old priest, who seemed to be having a hard time of it. Even though he had once been a samurai like the master, Masato guessed that the elder Ryosen was long out of practice with this kind of physical exercise. Still, he was managing to hold his own, and that was all that was needed.
Then the moment came.
Jiro, moving to keep them from getting behind him, backed his way to the edge of the roaring waters. The two attackers, sensing victory, began to push the older samurai even harder, pressing him ever closer to the water with each swing.
Masato gulped, but then steeled himself and grabbed Taro’s hand.
“Let’s go,” he whispered, and the two boys broke from cover and made for the bridge.
Jiro had told Masato to try for the bridge when he had the guard’s attention, and despite the danger there was no better time than now. As they ran, Masato saw a piece of heavy looking driftwood nearby, and he desperately wanted to grab it and use it to help his sensei escape the two Kurokawa soldiers. But, he also knew his duty, and so instead he took away Taro in a wide arc, aiming for between the two battles and the bridge beyond.
* * *
Out of the corner of his eye, Jiro saw his apprentice and the young lord run past, heading for the bridge. Then he refocused on the two men he was fighting- they had spread out to his right and left, and while one sliced at his body, the other was trying for his legs. He could hear the thunder of the water behind him, and knew that if he moved back any further or missed his step he would be lost to the river. It was an extremely precarious situation.
And, Jiro’s blood sang with the glorious ecstasy of battle.
It had been too long since the last time he had done more than train younger men to fight and survive in war. His lord didn’t allow him to go out often, and when he was free there were few challenges that could be solved with a sword. But, this was different, this was the kind of situation he had trained for ever since he was a child learning to hold his first wooden bokken. The kind that he had thought lost to him as age made him step aside and let younger men take his place.
Now, with each calculated movement, he was alive in a way few men would ever know. Every sense was afire, and everything seemed to have slowed down to his perception. The world was as clear as his purpose, and he had joined with it into a single being.
Then, the man to his left made a mistake, perhaps he was distracted on some level by the boys passing by, but he over-extended his swing and left an opening where Jiro’s sword could find a gap in his armor.
It did, and a second later the trap was broken, as Jiro dashed to the left, keeping his sword embedded in the surprised man’s chest and putting the dying samurai between himself and other soldier. Then Jiro put his shoulder down and rammed it into the man’s chest, driving him back into his surprised comrade and angling both towards the river.
Jiro let the momentum carry them over the edge, and to the fate they had planned for him, pulling the sword free as they fell back into the deep fast moving water.
Flicking the blood from the blade, Jiro spun and surveyed the situation.
Masato and Taro were just disappearing into the fog and across the river to safety, which was good, but his old comrade Fukui-san was losing badly.
Jiro crossed the distance in a flash, and put his blade between the guard’s shoulders.
As that man fell, Jiro saw Fukui-san drop to his knees. The old priest’s robes were dyed crimson from a stomach wound and he was struggling to breath.
“Thank you…Yamaguchi…” the old priest stammered, deep pain on his face.
“Can you walk?” Jiro asked, dropping to one knee in front of his old friend.
The old priest’s pale face looked up at him in an expression he knew all too well.
“Go,” said the dying man. “Get the young lord home.”
Jiro nodded, and was about to stand when there was a great thundering sound of men and footsteps from the nearby temple entrance and soldiers began to pour out onto the riverbank. Gempei, running at their lead, was already trying to notch an arrow and looking right at Jiro.
In a single thought, Jiro looked at the nearby bridge, calculated his chances, and the chances of the fleeing boys, and made a fateful decision.
* * *
“C’mon Masato,” Taro begged. “We have to go!”
Masato ignored the younger boy pulling at his sleeve and stared back into the fog. The bridge across the falls was a series of smaller bridges with platforms between them anchored onto rocks jutting from the river. When Masato and Taro had reached the first platform, Masato had stopped to wait for his master.
He knew he might get scolded later, but he just couldn’t abandon his sensei completely. So, there he stood, cold and soaked in spray, looking back desperately into the fog, hoping that at any moment his master and the elder priest would appear.
“Masato! I order you come!” Screamed the young boy, changing tactics.
It was likely stupid and dangerous, and he would only wait a little longer, but he had to…
And then he heard it, even over the noise of the falls- a loud cracking sound.
Suddenly, there was a great shudder in the platform beneath them, and the rope bridge they’d just crossed twisted to the left, and then to the right, and then finally- fell away. The distant end of the bridge disappeared down into the foggy river, leaving only the end connected to the groaning platform dangling into oblivion.
And with it, all hope of Masato ever seeing his master again.
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