Tag Archives: Japan

The Inuyama Rebellion: Part Twenty-Eight (End)

“He came soon after you left,” Shiori explained to Masato as they rode home the next day .

“Once I’d told him where you’d gone, we took one of the carts delivering fireworks for the festival and followed your path.” Then she covered her mouth and laughed. “I thought Jiro-san was crazy to take the cart, but perhaps he had planned this all along. You can never tell with that man.”

Masato nodded, still in wonder at the re-appearance of his teacher. What she said was right- his master so was full of tricks, who knew what he was capable of? He had escaped the Kurokawa at the temple, after all!

The Inuyama samurai had slowed once they’d returned to their own land, waiting to see if any survivors caught up with them. As it turned out, Jiro’s distraction had allowed more than a few men to escape the Kurokawa-backed trap, and by the end of the second day the party of fourteen had grown into one of nearly fifty. Of those fifty, many were hurt, but they were still luckier than the other half of the men- gone into Sugura lands, never to return.

Among the survivors had been Inuyama no Tetsuya, whose group had been one of the last to rejoin the survivors.

The normally handsome samurai was a mess of dirt and blood, and not riding his own horse, but he was still alive, and after seeing his elder brother, came to personally thank Masato’s master for the distraction. Jiro had put it off as Shiori’s idea, which was at least partially true, and Tetsuya had promised to come repay her for the fireworks and assistance later.

It was on the second night since the escape, when Masato was sitting on a log eating barbecued meat, that Jiro finally came to him.

Masato had just started to tuck into the food after the long day’s ride when nimble fingers suddenly reached over and plucked the fox spoon from his hand.

“And, where did this come from?” Jiro asked, examining the spoon as he sat down next to his apprentice.

Masato smiled proudly. “A girl gave it to me, master.”

Jiro almost immediately popped the cover off, revealing the hidden knife. “You sure she liked you, lad?” He held up the blade to study it in the firelight.

Masato nodded. “Uh-huh. I’m going to see her again someday to thank her for it.”

His master slipped the cover back on and handed it to Masato. “Just make sure you’re careful, lad. A girl who has this kind of trick around will have a few others as well.”

“I will, master.” Said Masato, not really understanding.

After a brief pause, Jiro said- “I should punish you, you took the young lord into the middle of an enemy trap. If anything had happened, it would have caused a great crisis in the clan.”

Masato wanted to protest, but instead he just hung his head and waited for the inevitable.

“However, if our lord sees fit to leave you be, I won’t press the issue.” Jiro continued. “I’ve wasted enough time on you already, and I don’t know how many years I’ll have left.” Then he smiled and rubbed his shoulder. “Not many if I continue to take such foolish risks.”

Masato waited a moment, and then, deciding the time was right, asked- “Sensei? Why are you still alive?”

His master laughed. “Want to get rid of me that badly, eh lad?”

“Oh!” Said Masato, realizing what he’d just asked. “No! I don’t mean I want you to go, I just…”

“…Want to know how I escaped the temple when the bridge was cut?”

Masato nodded that he did.

“Well lad, if you’re expecting something like a demon showed up, or I rode a cloud to safety, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.” His master answered with a wry smile. “The truth is, I used the bridge just like you.”

“But!” Masato said, surprised. “The bridge was cut!”

“No,” Jiro answered. “One end of the bridge was cut, I just happened to also be holding onto it when I cut it. I figured there was no escape, so I took a chance and held on tight. As it turned out, the bridge swung out after it went over the falls and hung down from the first landing. All I needed to do was climb up it to the top and I could cross the rest like you did.”

Art by Brushmen

“Oh!” Said Masato, bobbing his head in understanding. “That’s why Shiori said you came just after we left.”

“With the meeting coming so soon, I needed to warn our lord, and I knew she’d know where to find him. I just didn’t expect you to do the same, lad.”

“Yes…Sensei…” Masato said, slightly embarrassed at the reminder.

“Well,” said the master, after a moment of gazing at the camp. “I did tell you she was the right person to see in times of trouble, so I guess I have to take some of the blame for that.” Then he hit Masato on the shoulder and stood. “Eat up, lad. Tomorrow we ride for home, and I doubt we’ll be there long.”

“Sensei?” Masato asked.

“The Kurokawa know we prepare for war, lad.” Jiro said gravely. “The Sugura are also against us now, and have sided with our enemies. Whichever we fight, there are dangerous days ahead for the Inuyama clan. Our lord will need everyone able, even boys and old men.”

“Yes, sensei.” Masato said firmly. “I’ll be ready.”

Jiro looked at him, his stern expression softening. “After today, lad. I believe you are. I believe you are.”


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion- Part Twenty-Seven

As the blue and white tide washed down on the hundred Inuyama samurai from all sides, Masato heard Tetsuya scream out- “Protect the lord! Protect your lord!”

Then, with his sword drawn the handsome young Samurai yelled at his lord brother- “Elder brother, flee! I will lead the charge to freedom.” He then pointed at the Samurai around Masato and yelled. “All of you, protect our lord and get him and these boys to safety! Escape back to Inuyama land!”

“Brother!” Cried Lord Inuyama, but it was too late, for the intense young man had already wheeled his horse around and was leading the charge back up towards the single road that led to freedom. The Lord Inuyama rallied his men and also took off in that direction, as Masato started to- until he realized Taro wasn’t following them!

This was enough to spur Masato into action, and spinning around, the young samurai apprentice turned and grabbed Taro by the shoulder. The younger boy, who was too paralyzed with fear to move, looked at him in surprise, and Masato looked him right in the eye.

“Let’s go, young master!” Masato challenged him. “Last one out of the valley has to kiss the other’s feet!”

At first, Taro just stared at him, and then the young lord started to grin.

“You’re on!” He said, kicking his horse and taking off after his father.

Masato watched him go, and then with a glance back at the onrushing soldiers, he too began to ride for his life.

*    *    *

Masato quickly came to see the situation as hopeless.

With Tetsuya and the other Inuyama generals at the vanguard, the green and gold samurai horsemen raced up the field toward the entrance to the mountain pass and freedom. From both sides, the Sugura soldiers rushed down, and as they encountered groups of soldiers a few horsemen would break off to hold them while the rest of the riders went around and continued on. This happened again and again, and slowly the number of riders around Lord Inuyama, Taro and Masato began to drop until there were less than a dozen in total.

There was still, however, quite a distance to go.

And, as Masato watched, more troops came rushing out to form two lines of spears across the end of the field and the road to freedom.

The Sugura had clearly planned this in detail, and had no intention of letting them escape. The moment the Inuyama party had entered the lowland field for the meeting they had already entered the tiger’s den, and their own destruction. He and Taro had truly been too late, and had only gotten themselves caught in the trap as well.

Lord Inuyama shouted for the people with him to halt, and the riders reined in their mounts.

“We cannot escape that way,” growled the lord, then he looked right at Masato. “You! You’re Jiro’s boy, are you not?”

Masato hesitated, and then indicated he was.

“These traitors are after me, not my son.” His lord continued. “You have proven his brave companion, now honor your loyalty to me and escape with him into the forest.” He gestured to a nearby patch of tree line with no soldiers near it. “I will lead the fight away from you.”

“Father! No!” Shouted Taro.

“Get him home,” the lord told Masato, giving his son a long parting look. “Son, I…”

“My lord, look!” Cried one of the other riders.

Masato, like everyone else, stopped to look at the entrance to the pass above them. There, beyond the enemy lines, a wheeled horse cart had appeared- minus the horse. The cart was rolling down the field toward the enemy from behind, and Masato could see what looked like a sparkles coming from inside the cart as it rushed downhill.

Suddenly there was a loud pop from the cart, and then another, and huge plumes of blue and red and gold fire began to erupt from the cart and shoot in all directions. Then more explosions, each one faster than the last, and more fireworks exploding out from the cloud of smoke that surrounded the cart.

The lines of Sugura spearmen, who turned to find themselves facing this monstrous sight coming right at them, began to break and run in all directions.

“Quickly!” Shouted Lord Inuyama as he urged his horsemen to move. “Ride for the pass!”

As they rode through the confused and scattered troops, Masato turned his head to watch the cart continue its path down into the battlefield, having a similar effect on the other troops below. The huge showers of orange and yellow sparks were causing chaos, and the cart itself was heading right for the enemy encampment.

Masato found himself wishing that the cart would blow up right in Lord Sugura’s face, but was disappointed to see the cart hit a rock before it reached the camp and tumble over on its side into a cloud of smoke and colored fire. Oh well, one could only hope for so much!

Lord Inuyama’s small party rode up through the pass and onto the mountain road, and there, waiting for them were two more riders on horseback.

Masato immediately recognized Shiori, now dressed in a travel jacket and pants, with her hair tied up with white cloth to make her look like a man to those who didn’t know her. But, it was the other rider who made Masato’s eyes nearly fly from his head.

Sensei! It was his teacher, Jiro! Alive!

“Jiro!” Lord Inuyama shouted. “I should have known if the boy was about you would be too!”

“Always where you need me, my lord.” Replied Jiro, cheerfully. “Now, my lord, we need to hurry. These woods aren’t safe.”

“Lead the way!” Ordered the Lord of the Inuyama, and they followed Jiro to freedom.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion- Part Twenty-Six

“Masato, we’re not stopping.”

Masato nodded, agreeing with the young master. As they rode along at the back, he had watched the Lord’s procession draw closer and closer to the enemy camp, even after they had given the letter to that official. Now they were almost there, and nobody had come for Taro, or even slowed down.

His heart began to sink, it was clear they didn’t believe them, or didn’t care. He sighed. He had done his best, and now…now there wasn’t much left to do except pray. Maybe Shiori-san had been right after all- it was in the hands of the gods.

Then he heard Taro yell at his horse, and the young lord shot away towards the front of the procession. The guards around them were so surprised, they didn’t react, and before they could Masato too had kicked his horse and was dashing forward.

“Stop!” Cried the general, but he was already left behind as Masato and Taro raced ahead past the lines of troops- right for his father.

“Father! Father!” Cried Taro, drawing the attention of the samurai ahead of them.

The official they’d met earlier was also at the head of the line, and at a word from him several riders turned to face the boys. Two of them took their horses out of the line and stood there with spears in hand- now raised at the oncoming young boy!

Masato’s heart caught in his throat as the young master, heedless of the danger, continued to rush headlong at the mounted samurai.

“Father! Father!” He cried. “Don’t go! I don’t want to lose you, father!”

Then another rider broke from the line between Taro and the spearmen- a samurai in green and gold armor moved his horse to block the way. Taro’s horse instinctively pulled to a halt, despite the urgings of the young boy, and this new samurai took advantage of the moment to grab the horse’s reins and keep it from running further.

“Whoa! Whoa!” Called the new samurai as he struggled to keep the horse from riding on. “Stop it boy!” He yelled at Taro. “I’m trying to save your life!”

Masato, who had now caught up with Taro, brought his horse alongside the boy’s. He could see Taro had tears streaming down his face, and he was still crying “Father! Father!”

“Stop it, young lord!” Masato begged. “Please, Taro-kun! Stop!”

“Taro-kun?” Said the new samurai, and for the first time Masato got a look at the one who was also trying to save the young lord’s life. Masato was shocked, for this handsome young man was Inuyama no Tetsuya- Lord Inuyama’s youngest brother, and Taro’s uncle!

“Tell me your family name, boy!” Yelled Tetsuya, pulling Taro close.

Taro, shaken awake by the sudden rough treatment, stopped yelling and gasped under the intense stare of the samurai. “I-Inuyama no Taro…” He stammered, mostly in fear.

The samurai’s gaze suddenly shifted to Masato, who also had to force himself to keep from backing away.

“Is this the lord’s second son?” He demanded of Masato.

Masato squeaked that it was.

“Explain.” Tetsuya ordered.

In as short a form as he could manage, Masato did. He was only marginally aware of the other samurai who had also stopped to listen to this while the rest of the convoy rode on. Once he had finished, having skipped details like his master’s death and the events at the temple, the men began to talk excitedly to each other.

“Where is this letter you say the woman gave you?” Tetsuya asked.

“I-I gave it to him,” Masato said, pointed forward toward Hasegawa Yohei.

Tetsuya followed Masato’s finger, and then nodded to himself. “Ride with me,” he told them, and wheeled his horse around to lead them forward.

When they got to the two spearmen, who were still waiting, one look from Tetsuya made the men stand aside and let the boys pass. At last, they drew so close to the front of the line that Masato could see the crest on the helmet of their lord. But, before they could approach any further the official appeared.

“Young lord,” said Hasegawa Yohei politely to Tetsuya. “It is too important a time now to disturb your lord brother, please take these young men back with you and wait.”

But Tetsuya would have none of it. “These boys have an important message for my brother. Come with us.”

“Y-Yes…my lord…” Said the Chief Advisor, his eyes dropping in deference to the younger man.

Together the group rode forward, at last reaching the head of the line.

Tetsuya called out, and Lord Inuyama raised a hand to halt the procession, then turned to face them.

Masato had only rarely seen his lord, and never in full battle armor. Lord Inuyama was an imposing man normally, but in his gold and green armor he looked every bit like a king. Even the black eyepatch he wore to hide the eye lost in battle long ago didn’t mar his handsome, regal features.

“Elder Brother!” Called out Tetsuya, “Come and see who has returned to us!”

The lord approached, looking mildly annoyed. “Is this another of your japes, brother?”

“No, elder brother. It is not.” Tetsuya turned to look at Taro. “Look at this young lad, and tell me who you see?”

There was a look of further annoyance on the lord’s face, but then it melted away as it was replaced by astonishment as he stared at his son. “Taro? Are you…Taro?”

“Father!” Cried Taro, tears again rolling down his rosy cheeks. “Father, I have come home.”

“How is he here?” The shocked lord asked his younger brother. “Why?”

And so Tetsuya told him, and the lord listened.

At last, Lord Inuyama turned and looked at his Chief Advisor. “Is this true, Hasegawa?”

“Perhaps, my lord. Perhaps.” Said the sweating man. “I thought it best to wait until after until…”

“Until what?” Said the lord with icy fury. “Until we marched into a trap?!?”

“W-well, m-my lord…It may not be a trap, we do not know.”

“Are you saying the Kurokawa have made a liar of my son?” Asked Inuyama, his single eye glowing with the fire of anger.

“N-no, my lord. Of course not. But…”

Lord Inuyama raised a gloved hand to stop him. “Go to the Sugura and tell them I am sick- we will return tomorrow.”

“My lord?” Yohei asked, alarmed.

“Do it.” Then he looked at Tetsuya, and the other men assembled around them. “Turn the line around, we’re returning to our own lands.”

All agreed, even Yohei, who Masato watched start out for the Sugura lines- which were now so close he could see the faces of the samurai waiting on the seats in front of the tents.

As Masato watched, the man in the middle of those warriors suddenly folded the fan he’d been using and raised it into the air. This was followed by a horn blast that was so loud it made everyone in the Inuyama party stop and turn to look around.

Then the air was filled with the sounds of men yelling at the tops of their lungs as foot soldiers carrying spears began to pour from the treelines on either side of the field.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion- Part Twenty Five

As they came through the mouth of a mountain pass, Masato looked down and saw his lord’s procession.

Lord Inuyama and his guard of twenty men were riding in full regalia along an open stretch of green fields, and directly ahead of them Masato could see tents and another group of samurai waiting. The samurai who were waiting flew flags with the blue and white Mon symbol of Lord Sugura- a stylized tree next to wavy lines for water.

Had they come too late?

Masato scanned the area around, but saw no soldiers except the few waiting in front of the tents. Then again, they could have men behind the tents, in the tree line to either side of the field, or maybe Sugura had something else planned. In any case, he needed to get down there and warn his lord!

Pushing his horse, he and Taro raced down the hill in pursuit of the procession. The Inuyama party seemed to be moving at a leisurely pace, and closing on it Masato began to feel some sense of hope. It was going to be close, but began to feel they could still make before the two groups met.

As they approached, two of the green and gold armored Inuyama samurai at the rear broke off from the main party and turned back to meet them. One, with an elaborate and demonic looking Menpo facemask, raised his armored hand for them to stop as they rode up, and Masato pulled back on his horse’s reins.

“This isn’t a place for children,” announced the general. “Leave.”

“But sir!” Masato cried. “You must listen- our lord is riding into a trap!”

“What?!?” Yelled the general, and he reached up and pulled aside his mask to reveal a flat face with small eyes and a bushy mustache. “Do you have proof?”

“I do, my lord.” Masato announced, pulling Shiori’s letter from his jacket. “This letter, and this young boy beside me is the second son of our lord who was sent to the Kurokawa.”

The general studied them a moment, and then made a decision. “Follow me!” He ordered, and wheeled his horse around.

“We did it, Masato-kun!” Taro said gleefully as they were escorted back to the main party. “We warned father!”

Masato nodded, he felt a little relieved, but wouldn’t feel secure until they were all safely away from Lord Sugura and his men.

As they approached the main group, three more riders came out to meet them- one samurai and two courtiers dressed blue robes with tall black hats.

*     *     *

Hasegawa Yohei, chief retainer for Lord Inuyama studied the two boys on horseback that General Yamahira brought back with him. Despite their dishevelled appearance, there was something familiar about these two, and he ordered his guard and assistant to stop and let the general ride up.

“What have we here, General?” Asked Yohei.

The general gave a slight tilt that was likely all he could manage of a bow in his armor while on horseback. “My lord, these are messengers who claim that our great lord is in danger.”

“Indeed,” Yohei said with interest. “Do they bear a letter?”

“They do, my lord.”

“I will see it.”

The general bowed again, and then fetched the letter from the older boy, who seemed most anxious at giving it away. General Yamahira delivered it to Yohei, who examined the seal first- it bore the symbol of the clan’s intelligence corps- then he opened it, and read the contents.

He hadn’t even finished before he turned white as a feather.

This letter said that Sugura was going to betray the Inuyama! How could that be? Yohei had spent years setting up this alliance, and this was to be the crowning jewel of his political career. Did the writer of the letter know how long he had labored? How carefully he had planned? How much money he had spent?

No! This simply wasn’t possible. He wouldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it, not of Sugura. They needed the Inuyama, and the Inuyama needed them, or else the Kurokawa would have them all.

This had to be some Kurokawa trick- some bit of deception.

He looked at the boys, now knowing why they looked familiar. That was indeed Masato, an apprentice of the clan swordmaster, and the younger boy did bear a resemblance to his mother under all that dirt, so he likely was young Taro. Clearly Shinpei had failed to capture them as ordered, and now they had come through with this false information planted by the Kurokawa. No doubt the boys were innocent pawns, and the lord would be overjoyed to see his son again, but that would come in due time.

Hasegawa Yohei folded the letter and put it into the folds of his billowing sleeve.

“I will take care of this, general.” He told the soldier. “Keep the boys here at the back with you while I ride forward. I will summon them when they’re needed.”

“Of course, my lord.” Answered the old soldier, and he led the boys away. The children didn’t seem happy, but they obeyed as they should.

Yohei turned and looked forward. They had almost reached Sugura’s camp, and when they did he would be glad of it.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion- Part Twenty-Four

Masato helped Taro up onto his horse, and then turned to the farmers once more.

“We’re most sorry for all the trouble we have caused!” He said, bowing to them.

The father waved a hand at him. “No. No. It is also our fault. If my daughter had not attacked you, then this would not have happened.”

Masato glanced around for Natsuko, but the spirited girl was nowhere to be seen.

As it turned out, the girl and one of her brothers had mistaken he and Taro for bandits, and it had been she who had attacked him while they hid their horses near the farm. The real bandits had come upon them shortly afterward, and taken advantage of the situation to tie the two boys up and imprison the farmers.

The girl had disappeared while he had explained where he and Taro were going, and Masato hadn’t seen her since. It was too bad, he had wanted to see her to say goodbye.

Getting onto his horse, Masato waved to the farmers and then started out in the direction they’d told him. It was still the middle of the night, but they had no moment to waste, and had already lost enough time here at the farm.

As they reached the edge of the farmland, and before they had passed into the forest, a shadow jumped in front of the horses.

Pulling his mount to a halt, Masato peered down in the moonlight at the figure with it’s arms out- it was Natsuko!

“Take me with you!” She shouted.

Masato was taken aback- what should he do?

“I’m sorry, miss. We’re going to war.” He told her, trying to sound as adult as he could. “You can’t come with us.”

“Do you want the bandits to get you?” She asked.

“Miss, a samurai isn’t afraid of death.” Masato told her proudly.

“Oh really?” She said, walking up next to him. “So you don’t want to know the secret way across these hills?”

Masato paused. “Is it faster?”

“Oh yes, much faster.”

He looked at Taro, who looked back at him impatiently.

“Fine,” Masato sighed. “But…”

He had barely gotten the words out when she had grabbed onto his jacket and was hoisting herself into the saddle behind him with amazing speed. He felt the warmth of her pressed against his back, and there was a sweet scent like flowers around him. The whole thing suddenly made him feel a little dizzy.

“Let’s go!” She told him when he just sat there. “Don’t make me hit you again!”

Masato did as he was told, for fear she might do exactly that.

*     *     *

Art by Brushmen

The three of them rode as fast through the forest as the night would allow, Natsuko giving them directions and taking them through a series of back paths.

It really amazed Masato how well she knew the forest, even at night.

“Oh, I grew up hunting here with my brothers.” She explained when he commented on it. “The best time to catch rabbits and foxes is at night, and I see pretty well in the dark so they always take me along. Are you any good at catching rabbits?”

Masato admitted he was better at cooking them than catching them.

“You cook?” Said the girl, clearly surprised. “But I thought samurai had servants to do that.”

“Well, I’m just an apprentice.” Masato told her. “I’m not a full samurai yet, so I have to cook for my master sometimes.”

“Oh, I see.” Said, the girl, who clearly hadn’t considered this possibility.

After that, the girl began to ask Masato questions about himself, and that lead to his life in the castle. She seemed to want to know everything about the castle and what court was like, who was who, and showed quiet a good memory for names. It had taken him years to understand how the castle functioned, but she seemed to grasp it all as fast as he could tell her.

It was only when they were on the downward slope and the sun had crested the Eastern sky that he became aware of the passage of time again- so focused had he been on their conversation.

At last, they came to the edge of a long dirt road that extended out in either direction, and she told them to halt.

Masato’s back suddenly felt cold and empty as Natsuko slipped from the saddle and stood beside the horse looking up at him.

“This road will take you to the meeting place,” she said as she pointed to the left. “Just ride hard and you should get there by mid-morning.” Then she took the wooden fox spoon from her sash, and offered it to him. “Take this as a token of my apology for last night.”

Masato naturally refused it, but the girl insisted she had another and he finally relented.

As he took it, she said “That spoon is the boy fox. I have the girl fox. They were made by my father for me, and were always together before now. Come back and let them visit someday.”

“He will…” Masato croaked, then stammered. “I mean…I will.”

Then she smiled, and suddenly those large black eyebrows didn’t seem so ugly anymore, in fact they seemed to look quite nice on her now that he thought about it.

Taro made an impatient noise. “Masato-kun…” He hissed.

And that brought Masato back to reality- he had a mission to fulfill!

“Thank you for your help, miss!” He told her, and kicked his horse.

As the two riders shot off down the road, he couldn’t help but glance back. The farmgirl was still there by the roadside, watching them go. Unconsciously, he touched the wooden knife-spoon now tucked in his jacket, and made a promise to return it someday.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion: Part Twenty-Three

The bandits were clearly exhausted from the long chase, and fell asleep shortly after they’d been fed. The lone exception being the one assigned to stand guard- the large bald man who had spoken earlier sat next to the dying embers of the cooking pit and busied himself cutting a piece of wood. Fighting sleep himself, Masato kept his eyes barely open and watched the man work his long, wicked looking knife with amazing dexterity as he carved away at the little stick.

Masato could feel the knife-spoon the girl had slipped him resting inside his pantleg where he could easily get it and cut his way free, but the door was across the room, and he knew he’d never make it. If it has just been him, he might have tried to run, but with Taro next to him he was stuck where he was. All he could do was hope the big man would fall asleep and that they might be able to escape then.

Then he saw movement, and the farm girl heading for the door.

“Hey!” The big man whispered, putting down his carving. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I need to check the goats,” she replied. “They’re going to wander off if they’re not tied.”

The big man made a negative gesture, and pointed back to where she’d slept. “Get back to bed!” He hissed.

As Masato watched the girl suddenly drew close to the man and smiled, whispering something to him that Masato couldn’t quite hear, but that nonetheless changed the big man’s expression rather quickly.

“Okay, let’s go.” He nodded eagerly, setting aside his carving and slipping his knife back into its belt sheath.

Then the two of them slipped out quietly, and the room was silent once more.

The moment they were gone, Masato slipped the knife-spoon out and got to work. He wedged the knife facing up between his legs and used it to cut the straps on his hands, then grabbed it and freed his feet as well. The gag was the last thing to go, and then he looked at Taro, who had fallen asleep.

Gently rousing the young lord, he made quick work of the bonds and then motioned for the boy to follow him.

Leading the way, Masato crept around the edge of the one-room farmhouse as slowly and carefully as he could, using the dying firelight to see his way by. Several times, he or Taro nearly tripped over something, but they managed not to knock anything over, and, after what seemed an eternity, they made it to the doorway and slipped out through the hanging cloth that covered it.

Taro wanted to speak, but Masato stopped him, and then led him away from the building to some nearby bushes.

“Stay here!” Masato told him. “If they wake up, look for your chance and run into the forest.”

“Where are you going?” Asked the worried boy.

“I need to check on that girl.”

“But, we have to go.”

Masato shook his head. “She saved us, I’m not leaving her.”

Then, before the young lord could protest again, Masato rushed off into the night.

*     *     *

The farm was small, but still consisted of several buildings. In addition to the house, there was a storage building, a stable, and a few pens for animals. The moon was nearly full and the sky cloudless, so there was plenty of light for Masato to see by as he crept around the farmyard. Of course, that worked both ways, so he had to stay close to whatever cover was available to avoid being seen.

He found the girl and the bandit out near the pens, with the big man holding the gate while the girl led a goat inside, and shutting it once she was finished. Then, as the girl turned around, the big man grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to kiss her.

Seeing her fighting his advances, Masato suddenly found himself enraged, and quickly grabbed a piece of dry firewood from a nearby pile. Holding it as he would a sword, he advanced on the man from behind and quickly struck him hard on the back of the head. This, however, only broke the wood and caused the man to drop the girl and spin around, reaching for his knife as he saw Masato standing there.

Masato held the stick carefully, and kept it between him and the man as the long knife appeared. He was going to do his best to keep the man distracted, and then when the…


The bandit suddenly let out a loud moan and dropped forward, hitting the ground with a loud thud.

Behind him, the farmgirl stood carrying a shovel.

“He hurt you?” She asked.

“Uhh…no?” Said the slightly confused Masato. This didn’t seem right somehow- the stories always seemed to go another way.

“Good,” she said, and grabbed Masato’s arm. “Come with me.”

Masato did as he was told, letting the girl lead him back across the farm. She seemed awfully pushy for a girl, he began to wonder if she was really a boy in disguise.

Finally they came to a stone-walled storehouse, but Masato could see a large log had been placed across the door.

“My father and brothers are in there,” she explained as she examined the log. “The bandits made them go inside or they’d kill mother and I.”

“Oh, I see.” Said Masato. He looked at the log- it was big enough to take several men to move, and there was little doubt why the farmers hadn’t been able to escape. In fact, he doubted that he and the girl would be able to move it by themselves either.

That didn’t stop her from trying, however, and she was now tugging at the log to see if she could move it. “Well, are you going to help or stand there like a stupid old cow?” She asked.

Masato didn’t answer, instead he began to walk along the length of the large log. A log was round and should roll, but this one didn’t, so there had to be a reason. He found it a short distance along- there were a few stumps along the length where branches had been and these protrusions prevented it from turning.

“Do you have an axe?” He asked the girl, rushing back.

“No, just my shovel.” She held it up, but Masato shook his head- it was too thin and would likely break.

Then an idea struck him, and he ran off across the yard. When he returned a few minutes later, he held the large knife the man had threatened him with and began to use it to hack at the stumps. As it turned out, the wood had started to rot, so the long knife was able to make large gashes as he chopped away.

“Hurry!” She urged him, looking at the house.

“I am.” He replied.

He kept thinking about how much noise he might be making, and that they were going to get caught at any moment, but the ideas just made him work even faster. Eventually, he managed to break away the largest of the stumps, and a few minutes later had cleared away most of the smaller ones.

Once that was done, he hopped over the log and began to push. The girl joined him, and the two of them strained with all of their might against the log. It was large and nearly flat on the bottom, which made rolling it difficult, but with their combined effort they managed to turn it, and the long rolled forward half a rotation before it met another stump and stopped.

But that half a rotation moved it a distance thicker than a man away from the door, and after the girl undid the locks, a middle aged man and three younger men slipped through the gap it left.

“Natsuko, where is your mother?” Asked the older man, and she quickly told him, she also explained about Masato.

“Thank you, young man.” Her father said to Masato, bowing, and the brothers did the same.

“Ahh…No…No…” Masato answered, feeling his ears start to burn. “It was nothing.”

Then the father looked at the girl again. “Do the bandits still sleep?”

She nodded, they did.

“Then,” said the father, taking the shovel from his daughter while the brothers spread out to find other weapons. “We shall go wake them.”

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion: Part Twenty-Two

The boys were about an hour out from the inn when Masato noticed the pursuers.

They’d ridden from the woods into a patch of rice paddies and were halfway across when Masato looked back and saw the other riders exit the forest behind them. There were about ten men, all of them dressed in dark colors, which made them look even more ominous in the fading light.

They could have been hunters, or other travelers, but Masato knew the moment he laid eyes on them that they were after he and Taro. He let his horse drop back to ride next to the other boy, and motioned behind them.

“We’ve got to ride faster!” Masato yelled, and Taro nodded after a quick backward glance.

Soon, they were under cover again, riding the twisting gray-white patch of road through the blackened forest. Sweat was pouring from Masato now- who were these men? Why were they chasing the pair? Were there others ahead of them? He kept glancing back and wondering how close they were.

Then they came to another clearing on the side of a hill, and Masato saw the riders were not only still there, but indeed gaining on the pair. They had closed half the distance, and Masato could now hear them cursing and yelling at their horses to move faster.

At the same time, Masato could feel that his own horse was breathing hard, and knew that at this rate there wasn’t much of a chance they’d be able to reach their destination over the mountain before the others caught them. They were in a trap, and it was slowly closing around them.

What could he do? They still had a little distance between them, so maybe if a fork came in the road they could take one of the side roads. Then, if they let the hunters pass, they could try and find another way to get to the meeting place, while still letting their horses rest a bit. The problem was there were enough of the other riders that he couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t just break off into two groups. He didn’t even know if they’d been doing that already.

Still, he had to do something before they were caught, and now was the time for risks.

That’s what his master would have done.

So, he edged his horse out ahead, and when the next fork in the road came, he took the sideroad instead of staying to the main route. The sideroad was partially grown over, so now the road was a dark collection of black and white spots under them, but there was still enough moonlight to see their way. After a time, they came to another clearing with a farm in it, and he led Taro off the road and behind a stand of trees near the farm.

Stopping the horses, they waited.

The moments passed slowly, and Masato thought that the whole forest must have been able to hear his heart beating, but as time passed and nothing happened his heart slowed and he began to relax. No dark riders came bursting from the forest, and the only sounds were the horses breathing and the crickets.

Then Masato noticed something- the crickets had stopped.

He was about to turn and look around when the blow hit him.

His last memories were of Taro yelling, and a feeling of falling.

Then the ground came up at him, and everything went black.

*     *     *

Masato’s first sensation was the smell of venison stew cooking, and he became aware of warmth on his face and the cool feeling of a rice mat underneath him. He could also hear the sounds of people- men talking and laughter. It made him think of life in the castle dojo, and for a moment he almost felt like he might be home again, like someone had come and gotten him and it was all over. Then the pain at the back of his head and his aching left arm reminded him that this was all too real, and whoever had struck him was likely not a friend.

He opened his eyes slowly and peered around without moving. In the middle of the room was a typical cooking fire, with a pot on it and smoke spiraling up to the holes in the roof above. Tending the soup pot was an older woman dressed in simple farmer’s clothes, and another younger woman huddled next to her. Around the room, the orange firelight flickered a sinister glow on the faces of men who sat drinking and talking- big, rough looking men wearing dark furs and carrying weapons.

Bandits, thought Masato.

Then he heard a rustling near him and looked up, finding Taro sitting against the wall with a gag in his mouth. Further inspection showed Taro’s hands and feet had been tied, and in fact, so had Masato’s! Both of them were tied up like a couple of pigs, and pigs who were tied as they were rarely had a long future ahead of them.

Trying not to panic, Masato laid there and tried to ignore the pain and his growing sense of hunger enough to think their situation through. They were in a farmhouse, likely the one they’d stopped near as he probably hadn’t been out that long, and the bandits were here, so that meant the bandits had carried them here and probably had plans to stay for the night. He counted five bandits in the room in addition to the two farm women, which was half the number of pursuers he’d seen when the chase first began. Half the bandits meant twice the chances, so that was something good at least.

At last, the stew smelled ready, and the bandits had the old woman begin to ladle it out into wooden bowls, with the younger woman passing them out to the men. Masato could see now that the younger woman was a girl of about fourteen or fifteen with a face that he felt might be pretty if she didn’t have those thick black eyebrows. Masato was used to court women, who plucked their eyebrows at the time.

A few of the men treated the girl a bit roughly, which made Masato feel angry as he watched, but she didn’t seem to mind and playfully smacked their hands away, making jokes at their expense. This made them laugh even harder, and bewildered Masato somewhat, as he wondered if all peasant women were so rough hewn by nature.

After all the men were fed, the girl looked over at Masato and Taro and asked- “Hey, what about them?”

The leader of the bandits, a man who Masato recognized from the raid at the Inn, shrugged. “Let ’em starve.”

“Hold on, Genma.” Said one of the other bandits, a bald man a bit larger than the rest. “The boss said we were supposed to treat ’em careful. Maybe we should feed them.”

Genma thought about it a minute, and then motioned to one of his fellows. “Take off the gags,” he ordered. “And untie their hands, but leave their feet alone.” Then he went back to his stew.

After the man had roughly sat Masato up and partly untied both he and Taro, the man returned to his meal, leaving them alone in the corner with the peasant girl.

“Here,” she said, sticking a bowl in Masato’s hand, and another in Taro’s. “Eat up if you don’t want to starve.” She also gave them wooden spoons she pulled from her sash- the one Masato got had a long handle carved to look like the body and head of a fox.

“Careful with that one,” she told Masato as she looked right into his eyes. “The top part has a crack in it.”

Masato, who suddenly felt like his insides were meltingly hot before he’d even touched the stew, couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just nodded and quickly lowered his eyes.

Taro actually thanked her, and then started to ask, “Could you…” Before one of the bandits shouted “No talking! Just eat!” and put an end to it. The girl gave one last look at Masato, and said “be careful” as she nodded toward the spoon, then she returned to the cooking fire.

Masato watched her go, but then the roar of his stomach overwhelmed him and he quickly set to the stew- it was hot, but he was too hungry to care as he barely blew on each spoonful before shoveling it down.

Art by Brushmen

He was about halfway through when the thought came to him that the spoon didn’t feel loose in his hand at all, in fact, for a wooden spoon a little shorter than the distance from his fingertips to his wrist it had quite the heft to it. He paused and examined it more carefully, and it was then he noticed that halfway along the handle’s wooden shaft there was a thin line. Testing to see what would happen, he put two fingers above the line, and two fingers below, and pulled gently.

A gap appeared between the two halves, and between them the silver blade of a knife shone.

Instantly, he covered the blade again, and looked up to see if any of the bandits had noticed.

It seemed none had, for the only person who was watching him was the farmgirl.

Their eyes met, and understanding passed between them.

Now Masato had a way out, the only question was- when to use it.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion: Part Twenty-One

While the coming of the Obon festival was a religious event to celebrate one’s ancestors, it was also an event in which men traveled home to see their families. Any event in which men traveled was also a time when business went up in the floating world, and thus the entertainment district of any town or city was now in furious preparation for the coming rush. The Inn of a Thousand Lanterns was no exception, and the girls and servants were all hard at work decorating for the coming event, with many carts rushing in and out of the compound at every hour.

Masato, worried that they might get turned away at the front door, had decided that he and Taro would follow one of these carts in like they were attendants and then look for Shiori-san. This seemed the best choice for them, as he and Taro had now been on the road alone since the morning of the day before, and neither smelled or looked like someone who would be allowed through the front doors of such a prestigious place. So, with the sun starting to sink in the Western sky, they laid their hands on the side of a cart and walked right in.

The young samurai apprentice was worried they might be thrown out before they could find the courtesan, but as it turned out his fears were misguided. They had no sooner gone through the gates than they found her standing there supervising a group of servants unloading what looked to be fireworks.

“The ones with the red bows go to the east garden, the ones with green bows to the west garden, and the yellow bows to the inner courtyard.” She ordered. “And, don’t mix them up, or the colors will be wrong, and Master Han will have your heads.”

Masato grabbed Taro and the two of them rushed over to her, with Masato not waiting for her to turn before he dropped into a deep bow.

“Ma’am.” He said breathlessly. “Your humble servant brings you greetings from my master.”

Shiori turned, looking at the pair of bowing boys with amused interest. “Oh?” She said curiously. “And, who is your master who sends me his smelliest servants?” The other servants had stopped to watch the scene, and a few laughed at her comment.

Then Masato raised his head, and she whispered “Masato-kun?” as her eyes went wide, going from bemused to concerned in an instant.

“My master is…” Masato began, not hearing her whisper his name and worried that they might get thrown out before she could recognize them, but Shiori suddenly raised a hand to wave in front of her nose.

“Ah, I know!” She announced. “You’re from the stables, aren’t you? That must be why you smell so bad.”

“Umm…No, we’re…” Masato persisted, not catching the hint.

“Be quiet, servant!” She told him, and the look in her eyes silenced him in a flash. Then she looked at one of her attendants- “You, finish up here, I’ll get rid of this pair.”

The attendants bowed, and Shiori strode deeper into the compound, motioning for the boys to follow her.

*     *     *

Apologies came when the three were alone, and explanations followed.

As Masato told his story, every word seemed to add another year to Shiori’s youthful face, until, as he told of the events of Jiro’s death, the vibrant woman who had led them into the gardens clung to a bridge railing for support. All she should do was stare off into nothing, and nod as he told how they came to the Inn.

Art by Brushmen

Finally, she stepped forward and hugged a startled Masato.

“I am very sorry for your loss,” she whispered hoarsely. “Your teacher was a good man.”

“Uhhh…Thank you.” Masato mumbled, and felt the tears coming, but did his best to stop them as it wasn’t manly to cry in front of women.

Then she backed away, wiped her face with her sleeve and knelt down in front of Taro.

“Welcome home, young master.” She said. “You were very brave.”

“Thank you,” Taro answered, acting precocious again. “But Masato-kun deserves the credit.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling at Masato with sad eyes. “Yes, he does. Jiro would be proud.”

“Shiori-san,” Masato said, trying to keep ahead of his sadness. “Can you help us? We need to warn our lord.”

“Yes,” Shiori stood up and brushed off her robes. “I will send a messenger right away to the nearest garrison. However, I don’t know if it will do any good. The meeting you speak of is tomorrow morning, and our lord has already left to meet Lord Sugura. If it is a trap, we may well be too late.”

“Oh no!” Masato exclaimed.

“Masato, we need to do something!” Taro yelled, “We have to warn father!”

But the courtesan just shook her head sadly. “We can only pray.”

But Masato didn’t think that Jiro would only pray- his master would do something.

And, so would Masato.

“Shiori-san,” Masato said, bowing deeply again to the lady. “Please! Give me a horse!”

And before Shiori could answer, Masato heard Taro yell-“Me as well!”

“Young lord, you can’t come!” Masato said angrily to the younger boy. “It’s too dangerous.”

But Taro remained stubborn. “It’s my father, I’m going to help!”

Masato looked at Shiori for aid, but after a moment’s hesitation the courtesan said- “I believe you should both go. It is unlikely the lord will listen without his son there as proof. I will also write a letter.”

“Thank you, honored lady.” Taro said, bowing to Shiori again.

Masato looked at the scene, and then sighed.

He didn’t like this, not one bit. But, what choice did he have?

Within the hour, the pair were cleaned up, fed, mounted, and on their way.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion: Part Twenty

“But, we need to see the general!”

The guard at the front gate of the fortress eyed the two scruffy looking boys and rubbed his chin, then he shook his head.

“I told ya already, I ain’t lettin’ you in!” He said, clearly getting annoyed.

“But…but…!” Masato protested. “This is the second son of our lord!”

“Oh yeah?” Said the guard, studying Taro for a moment. “Prove it!”

“You’re going to be sorry about this!  Masato said angrily, and gestured at the guard as he looked over at Taro. “Young Master, please show him your letter!”

But Taro shook his head. “I’m sorry, Masato-kun, I can’t.”

“What?” Masato cried. “Why not?”

“My brother took it.”

Masato looked at him dumbfounded, “Y-you must have something in that bag you can show him, right?”

Again the younger boy shook his head sadly. “These are my writing instruments and letters, I don’t have anything that can prove who I am.”

“Oh.” Said Masato, feeling the wind drop from his sails. Then he looked at the guard.

“Get!” Said the guard through gritted teeth, shaking the shaft of his spear threateningly.

The boys quickly got.

A short distance from the fortress, they paused beneath a shady tree to rest.

Once Masato had accepted the loss of his master, the choice had been obvious- he had needed to find an army base as quickly as possible. It was his responsibility to get the young master to safety, and to warn the Inuyama clan that Lord Inuyama was going to be walking into a trap. So, the pair had spent the morning journeying down into the valley to find the nearest outpost and warn them of the impending danger.

Now, with the guards having turned them away, there was little he and Taro could do. They had no horses, no money, and little food, and the only people who would recognize them were on the other end of the clan holdings, a walk of several days. Several days that Lord Inuyama likely didn’t have.

Masato tried to think. It seemed all so easy when his master did this- his master seemed to have bags and bags filled with plans in his head, and was always ready with one whenever the need arose. Masato sometimes wondered how his master had gotten so smart, but when he’d asked his master had always said- “Live long enough, Lad, and you’ll find out.”

Masato sniffed and tried to hold back the tears as he thought about his master, he still couldn’t believe what had happened. So many people would need to be told- his lord (who would probably give the master a new title) and the other students (who would probably blame Masato), oh, and Shiroi-san, who…

Masato’s brain suddenly ground to a halt.

He jumped to his feet, and peered around, trying to remember the way.

Taro, startled, looked up at him.

“Masato-kun?” He asked. “What’s wrong?”

“C’mon, young master. We’ve got to go!”

“Go? Go where?”

“To the Inn of a Thousand Lanterns.”

*     *     *

Shinpei the Tengu was dozing on the tatami mat of his hut when the ninja came for him.

His hut was located in the middle of a small stockade he and the other bandits had set up in the foothills, it had once been a remote farm, but after the farmer’s sons had died in a war, and the old farmer had passed on, it had become empty. The bandits had put up a fence, built stables, a still and a few shanties and called it home, with Shinpei getting the old farmer’s hut since he was the boss.

And as the boss, nobody dared to disturb his nap.

Except the ninja.

Shinpei hated ninja.

This one woke him with a rock to the forehead, a small rock, but enough to startle him and wake him from a pleasant dream. Ninjas were always doing things like this, which was why Shinpei hated them.

Shinpei’s first instinct as he woke was to grab his sword, which he always kept next to him, even when sleeping, and to look around for someone to use it on.

“You must be very tired,” said the mocking voice from somewhere in the dark space above him. “Working so hard as you do.”

Shinpei looked up, but not seeing anything except shadows and straw he relaxed and decided to sit back down.

“What do you want?” Shinpei said as he checked to see if he had any sake left in a nearby jar.

“I am here for a report on the two samurai who went to the Kurokawa to fetch the lord’s sons.”

Finding nothing to drink, Shinpei’s already bad mood became worse.

Art by Brushmen

“There’s nothing to tell,” he told the ninja. “If there was, I would have sent word to your master. My men are watching all the gates, they’ll let me know if those two make it back. But, if you ask me…”

“Which I did not.”

“…But if you ask me,” Shinpei repeated, not particularly caring whether the ninja wanted to hear it or not. “There’s no way they’ll make it back alive. The Kurokawa are just too thorough.”

“You will still keep the guard in place.” It was an order, not a question.

“Yeah, yeah.” Said Shinpei, stretching, and then, as he’d decided it was too hot to go fetch something, he laid back down on the mat and closed his eyes. “We’ll keep ’em there as long as the lord wants. But I still say ain’t nobody coming home.”

“Fine,” said the voice. And the tone made Shinpei smile, as he could hear the ninja was unhappy, but there was little the arrogant spy could do about it. Served him right.

Just then, there was a commotion in the yard, and Shinpei heard a horse brought to bay near the hut. Hurried footsteps followed, and then a man ran around to the hut’s open side where Shinpei lay.

“Boss! Boss!” Shouted Kano, one of Shinpei’s couriers. “They’re back! They came back!”

Shinpei looked up at the sweaty, excited man. “Who’s back?”

“Big Retsu saw one of those samurai we were chasing the other day, and he’s got a kid with him!”

Somewhere in the darkness above him, Shinpei heard the soft sound a person makes when they’ve just been proven right.

Shinpei hated ninja, he really did.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Inuyama Rebellion: Part Nineteen

“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.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!