Hair of the Hare Heir
The Pass Opens part 1
Hiruma Yoake sat on the edge of his squat watch tower. To call it a tower was generous; it was maybe 25 shaku, but twice as wide. The walls were very thick made of very neatly stacked stones. Stones were plentiful, finding the thousands needed for this could not have been hard. Yoake imagined the Kaiu workers moving like ants building these every several miles along the flatter areas at the base of the Twilight Mountains. But the towers were sturdy, standing through many winters and many earthquakes. He had seen only one of these towers ever knocked down by an earthquake. “Maybe that could liven up the day,” with a wide eyed look he clamped his hand over his mouth. “Bah!” he said, shaking his head to focus his attention. Arrow fletching was mindless, but no need to temp the Kami with thoughts like this.
Yoake shuddered in the cold breeze. He was bored, having now filled his twenty second basket of arrow. There had been no earthquakes since he was posted to the towers, 4 months ago. What a gennpuku present it was. He sighed. He got all the arrows he could shoot, if he made them, and rabbit was actually plentiful, although he had once taken down a boar. That thought cheered him and made his mouth water a little. “Ah, maybe I will take extra time a track another down…One Shot!” he gazed down the length of the slowly spinning arrow. Again he laughed to himself. The last boar took 14 arrows and only from this very ledge. Shooting down the ladder because the boar had chased him back into the tower. He remembered the terrified looks of the several Eta who clung to the beams as the wild pig destroyed the lodgings inside the tower. But they did eat well. He looked down at the two tusks he wore on a necklace, “Ok three arrows at the most.”
A bitter wind made him stand back from the edge. A few peasants stood tending a fire and stacking wood, and clearing the snow from the few places it remained lodged. It was the end of the winter, and Yoake knew a thaw could cause water or rocks to tumble toward his tiny tower. He picked up his bow and walked along the edge. A dull life on the mountain watch towers was not what Yoake dreamed of. This was not “The Wall”. A few goblins snuck out of the mountains but not more than a handful.
The peasants came here when he did at the beginning of Winter. Two were as young as he, and had never done duty yet. The other, Zoko, was older and had been serving along the Twilight Mountains for several years. He had talked of doing the 20 Goblin Winter, but stayed here instead.
One of the young peasant, an Eta, flushed a large hare from the scrub brush. Yoake smoothly pulled a blunted arrow from a basket and let it fly. The Rabbit tumbled and stopped near the others by the fire. All looked at the game, looked at each other than looked up at the tower with smiles. Yoake jumped up onto the lip of his tower and laughed, “Ha Ha! Collect some herbs and lets eat! Thank you for the Rabbit, much better than an earthquake!” The words rang out, and the peasants all got very scared looks on their faces. But Yoake was happy with his shot, even from up here the rabbit looked big.
Satisfied, he started to climb down, and he saw another hare bolt from behind some rocks. He reached back for another arrow that he loosed but it missed. Keeping his eye on the dodging animal, he reached for another arrow. His attention was drawn to another rabbit that dashed between the Eta’s legs. Had the daft peasant pulled up the cover on a warren? Something made the back of Yoake’s neck itch.
Below him a Samurai, pulling pieces of armor onto his shoulder while holding a bow in the his hand. Mushimoku Taime looked all around as he ran around the base of the tower toward the fire. He looked at the peasants, their expressions still slack jawed. One of the peasants slowly helped place the armor on his body. Then he examined all the peasants expressions, the downed rabbit, the quickly shot a look back up at the tower. His eyes became very wide. “Zakennayo! Hurry! Maru Maru! Get out of there!” the shout carried, but Yoake was already turning for the ladder. Taime had been a Hiruma for years, and a Crab that hesitates rarely lives to make that mistake again.
Sliding down the ladder, Yoake dropped rolled and made for the door, broken pottery cut into his shoulder. He took a moment to see what it was. A broken pottery bowl shattered next to the table. Movement caught his eye. A bottle fell from a shelf of it own will. Then he felt the movement. May my parents forgive their son the fool. Never think the word earthquake, unless you are willing to accept the consequences. Yoake ran for the door with renewed speed.
All around the earth jumped and lurched. The door of the tower faced away from the mountain side and everyone ran, or attempted to, place the tower between them and the mountains. Grabbing the low brush to steady himself, Yoake heard a rumbling crash. Two of the Eta wrapped themselves around his legs, and Taime dove past him. He turned to see the peasant who flushed the hare, Boota was his name, was running around the corner of the tower. Yoake had enough time to fix on his eyes, and then he was gone. A wash of rolling rocks and mud, consumed him.
The tower seemed to shift down hill and the roof supports whipped and snapped. Wood cracked and the roof slid flat on the tower but then bounced halfway off the tower top. It looked like a poorly fitted lid jumping on a boiling pot. Yoake watched in stunned horror as the roof crept off the edge. He watched as it bounced and flipped. A tug pulled at his collar, he stumbled back. Taime and Zoko were pulling him, the last peasant, another Eta, Aroko, looked over his shoulder trying to push the group onward, his face locked in terror. The roof hit the ground close to where they had been.
The rock started rolling wildly and mud flowed past the tower. The group struggled to a rock outcropping down from the tower. They pressed their backs against the rocks. The boulders crashed and waves of mud flowed past. The Earthquake slowed after an unknown amount of time but the mud and rocks continued to flow past. Taime squatted and rode out the maelstrom with a passive expression. He spoke few words, “shouldn’t be too much longer” and “we will need to be mindful of smaller quakes to follow.” He repeated these things to make sure the information had made its way through the shock the others seemed to be under. Yoake managed a laugh, “Mother said I should be a merchant,” he shouted over the noise, “And miss all this?”
He noticed he had an arrow nocked the whole time. Hiruma scouts are taught very early on that you must be always ready to take a shot; also shoot and run. He was not expecting anything could sneak up on them across the flowing mud, but habits are hard to break. He saw Taime did the same. He paid special attention to Aroko who did not have any experience with such things. He was terrified. Peasants were required to be brave or fight, nothing to be ashamed of. Eta and Heimen were treated much better by Crab Samurai. Other clans looked down on them. Crab respected anyone who would stand against the shadowlands.
There were several large rocks that smashed against their rock shelter. Some seemed as if they were thrown high in the air and came straight down on them. But the most disconcerting was when Taime pointed to the flowing mud. Scrub brush moved by and large bubbles broke the surface, but the exposed hindquarters of a mountain goat flowed by, it kicked every so often. Aroko vomited at the sight. Yoake turned back to Taime. “Goat? but they are,” he paused raising his head to look up the mountains, “they dont come down this low, do they?” Taime casually pulled some dried meat from a pouch and chewed on it, “not on their own feet, they dont.”
Two more minor tremors came in the next two hours. The mud slowed and the group climbed on top of their rock outcrop to survey the land. First sight to greet them was the roof of their tower had been pushed against the outcrop, it mostly held it shape but was filled with mud. The next was that their tower still stood, the mud neatly split around. It was near the top of the wall on the mountain side almost making a perfect ramp to the top. The Kaiu who designed the tower knew what they were doing. The door facing away from the mountains remained clear.
They were able to sit on the inside rim of the roof. Taime discussed with Zoko, who was the smallest of the group about paths to travel across the sea of mud. None of the choices made Taime happy and Zoko sighed with relief. It looked to be 25 yards to the solid ground at the tower.
Yoake kicked his feet against the roof. The wood thumped but was muffled by the mud. He stopped and stared at the roof timbers. The roof was made of large flat pieces of slate that hung on pegs on the roof joists. He pulled one of the slates free and tossed it in the middle of the mud. It cut into the mud and sank out of sight. “OK I didnt want it to do that,” he said with a disapproving scowl. He got Aroko to help him pull the next on and they dropped it flat on the mud. Taime watched with anticipation, as did Zoko.
The slate laid on the surface of the mud and did not sink. Water was starting to form little streams on the surface of the mud, maybe the mud was firming up. They watched it for a while and it seemed steady. Yoake tapped it with his bow. He tried to think very light thoughts as he stepped onto the middle of the slate. He stood and hardly sank. He smiled and raised his hands in victory. Taime laughed and he and Aroko handed out another slate tile.
When he grabbed the tile, as soon as the weight was held only by him alone, the floating tile tilted and slid into the mud. Yoake jumped for the roof but had to be pulled from the mud. Taime pulled Yoake up with surprising strength, and quickly surveyed for wounds. Seeing his charge was no worse for wear, a smile formed on Taime’s face and he said “Kaiu-sama, what is your next great engineering masterpiece?” Yoake blushed as he shoke mud from his legs. After a few deep breaths and a sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck.
The peasants were unsure if they should laugh. After a moment, the red flush fade, Yoake laughed as well. The peasants laughed, meekly but they laughed. The two Samurai stared at the gap between the roof and the tower. It would be dark in a few hours, and that would mean a very cold night. They needed a plan.
Zoko did not seem happy, the plan involved them pushing the timbers in a straight line toward the tower. Then Zoko would belly crawl on the timbers to the tower. Rope and other supplies were there. At worst, Zoko could get blankets and bring dry firewood. Two timbers were laid side by side, and they acted as a guide to slide a single timber on top of them. The timbers were very smooth and precisely cut. The two samurai could slide timbers out and Zoko timidly crawled out and pushed the timbers further and into place at the ends of the previous timbers. What seemed like a trivial distance, at least to a bow and arrow, seemed miles to the group.
The first few pairs of timbers easily easily slid and placed. Zoko crawled out to the end and probed the mud with a long stick. No rocky bottom that he could tell so they attempted to place more timbers. Taime and Aroko freed more timbers some now buried in the mud. Yoake moved the Slate tiles back to their original shelter, making a makeshift wall to offer them more than just the open rocks.
In another hour, they had covered nearly two thirds of the distance. But darkness was approaching and the chill was rolling in. Steam rose from the mud. Zoko was exhausted so Aroko reluctantly volunteered to try and position the next timbers. They slid slowly but made it to the end of the chain. Maybe two more link would be close enough to jump for the stone by the door.
Aroko crawled flat the new end and probed the mud with the long stick. A curious rush of air blew in his face, mud and water exploded upward. A submerged air bubble burst. The end timbers and Aroko were swallowed. Only a divot remained and part of a timber. Yoake lept up and was about to step onto the timbers when Taime stopped him. He only shook his head. They watched in silence, but no movement. Zoko repeated prayer upon prayer. Taime retired to the makeshift hovel and tried to start a fire from the scrub and shattered timbers. Yoake grabbed the boar tusks that hung around his neck and watched until it was too dark to see.