Hair of the Hare Heir
the pass opens part 2
The Pass Opens -Part 2
Hiruma Yoake stared at the sea of mud with the makeshift log bridge. It had snowed during the night. The three remaining members of the outpost, two Samurai and one Eta, lived through the night by a tiny fire and body heat. His knees ached from his vigil, and his bowstring hand was numb. Even the stiff sharkskin shooting glove creaked as he flexed it for warmth.
The other two joined him in the early sunrise. “You know a koma Crane would never have survived the night,” Mushimoku Taime spoke in an almost cheerful tone, “they would prefer death to sleeping with their arm around Zoko’s stink.” The small frail Eta gave a sideways look, “Hrmph” and he stuck out his tongue. The three all slowly looked back to the end of their bridge that had swallowed the young peasant. The cold of the night seemed to slow the mud from refilling the large bubble that had burst, but from their vantage point all they could see were the two timbers standing up like chopstick, rudely jammed in a bowl of rice.
They all squatted in silence. Taime cut some dried meat and handed it to the others. “We all do our duty, we all,” he thumped Zoko in the chest,”know that it is possible at any moment. But no other Clan would survive against the Shadowlands.” Zoko shivered at that last word. Several minutes of silence was broken by whistling winds. “He was not Samurai, you don’t have to carry any words for him,” Taime continued,”You can, but let’s keep ourselves alive first.” Yoake pulled the wind tossed hair from his eyes. “I know this, simple enough, ‘I will take a turn’ was the last thing he said.” Yoake shook his head, realizing the snow had started again. Zoko let a tiny sob out.
They fished a few more pieces of scrub and shattered roof for their fire and huddled back in the the roof slate lean-to. Looking out at the downhill side of their sea of mud, patches of snow accumulated. Steam rose from other areas. “Maybe we can walk across frozen mud if the cold keeps up,” Yoake said hopefully. Both Taime and Zoko shook their heads. “I think a blanket of snow might disguise a pit better than flowing mud,” Taime pulled the other two closer, “ We are close with our bridge just need to wait for a break.” The snow continued for a few more hours.
Later in the afternoon, the group had been napping from the excitement of watching snow melt on the warm mud. A rumble woke Yoake with a shocked expression. “Zakennayo!” he exclaimed and the others woke instantly. The shaking was low, but the sound was different. A roaring sound came riding along with some rain. Taime stood, signaling the others to stay, then crawled out of the shelter. He returned in seconds. Yoake had never seen a look of panic on Taime’s face before. It was there now.
Taime quickly looked up, left and right. Then he pressed Yoake and Zoko back against the rock the lean-to was made against. Yoake squeaked out a “What?!” but through the small opening he saw the rain was coming down very hard. Then the rain turned into a sheet of water. Roaring filled the air. A slate sheet to their right was torn away and a white rush of water was exposed outside. Water sprayed everywhere, and then the frame that remained of the roof crumbled and wrapped around the rock outcrop. Water now flew in all directions where it met the obstruction and the rest of the right side collapsed.
The three pressed against the rocks. Time was irrelevant, not being swept away by the torrent was the only concern. The only interruption was when large rocks crashed into their shelter. The water slowed, what flowed by was brown, still moving fast but not spraying. The level was down enough that they all could climb on the shattered wood from the tower roof to the top of the rock.
Zoko made it to the top first, he hung his head saying nothing. Yoake made it up next, he saw that most of the mud had washed down to the rock up to the tower. Mud and water still flowed around the tower but the way seemed clear. “We will be able to dry ourselves,” Yoake said with a smile to Taime who had made it to the top. Taime’s expression was sour, “We will need a bigger fire,” he nodded his head down to Zoko.
Zoko was silently untangling the body of Aroko from the jumble of roof timbers, scrub, and rubble that had collected. He carried the body through thigh deep mud back up toward the tower. Yoake and Taime climbed down and followed the path as best they could. By the time they had reached the tower, Zoko had laid the body out, separated the head, and started laying out wood for a pyre. Yoake had never watched an Eta prepare a body.
By Imperial decree bodies must be cremated when at all possible. The practice had been in place for hundreds of years, and few even thought about it. Samurai rarely thought about it because handling dead bodies was something you made the closest Eta do. No one thinks why, Eta fill that part of the Celestial Order. No one except the Crab Clan. When it is a very likely possibility that the dead could come back and fight against you…AGAIN! you remember that the slain must be taken care of. Crab Samurai know their duty and never allow pride to deter them in such things. That type of pride could make you dead or worse, Tainted.
Yoake watched the procedure; Zoko moved with an almost grace in his efficient movement. He did not speak except at designated points in the ritual, but he mouthed the words. Yoake knew the prayers, every Crab boy and girl did. He realized after a moment that Taime had entered the tower and had made his way to the roof. Yoake placed a hand on Zoko’s shoulder then ran to meet up with Taime.
The roof access had been protected by a wall. Mud and water had splashed up here, but was not more then a coating. Taime had pulled a basket of arrows from the stone shed here, plus other necessities. Smoke rose beside the tower and the two Samurai looked over to see the pyre had been lit. Zoko was already straightening up the grounds around the door; he never looked at the pyre. “Get an idea of what food and water we have,” Taime said, “Yoake! Do not stare! It does you and his spirit no good. Now GO!” The shout jarred Yoake out of the blank stare; he had not realized he had fallen into it.
It was said that the Shadowlands could do that to you. Becoming lost in thought, wandering off and into the arms of an oni. And they were not technically in the Shadowlands, a whole mountain range sat between here and there. Yoake noticed he had a tight grip on his boar tooth necklace. He climbed down the ladder, wondering if any of the other watch towers had fallen over. Almost at the bottom of the ladder, another quake shook him off the ladder and he hit the ground hard. As he righted himself he grabbed several bamboo canteens and slung them over his neck. He held two out one for Taime and Zoko.
Rhythmic impacts hit in the tower, and every so often a large boulder would roll past continuing down the hill. To their left, the ground moved in waves of mud having found another path down the hill. The shaking ended quickly but the flow of rocks and mud continued. Taime decided it was just as safe inside on the roof, so they all went back inside. Zoko placed more wood on the pyre before he entered.
They made a fire on the roof, put on dry clothes, and ate in silence. They heard rocks rolling past or thumping into the tower for most of the night. In the light of the next day, they could see that the mountain side of the tower had many more rocks and an almost gouged river bed had been carved up into the mountains. The rocks against the tower had made it halfway up the side.
A bitter wind whirled around but Taime decided to maintain the fire and for them to stay and watch for at least another day. “Things much worse than goats can be pushed down the mountains. We will wait up here until another quiet dawn,” he said chewing on a plant stalk. Yoake agreed and Zoko returned from stirring the pyre saying only “tower is locked.” Zoko disappeared down the ladder returning with blankets and water buckets. Firewood had been stocked up there too. The three set in for a long cold night.
Yoake was awoken by the sound of thunder. It was still dark, he had been on the first watch. How long had he been asleep? He looked to see Taime at the mountain side of the roof looking up. Zoko was still asleep. Yoake felt a shaking and heard more thunder. Taime had fired some arrows up the mountain side that had pitch-soaked rope to light the area. He was about to light another, when he turned and ran. Grabbing Zoko’s bed roll, he dragged it behind the wall that protected the hatch inside. Yoake followed just in time to feel the crash that shook the tower and knocked any loose stonework around. Dust and stone chunks covered his back half.
Taime looked down as the wide eyes of Zoko peered out from the blankets. “I may volunteer for the Twenty Goblin Winter next time. It has never been this bad that I remember,” Taime said with a small laugh. Zoko mildly shook his head. Yoake tried to brush the dirt off and pulled stone fragments out of his hair. “Tell me the other side of the Wall is not this exciting.” He examined one of the rocks. It shone with a greenish tint in the firelight. “Is this?…” he didn’t finish before Taime grabbed his hand, “Jade…” finishing Yoake’s sentence. The three stared at the green chunk that was the size of Yoake’s middle finger.
As the dust settled, several other small raw jade pieces were found scattered about. Every Crab that manned a post had a small piece of jade. This far away from ‘the Wall’, the pieces were barely slivers. Yoake had his in a small bag between the two boar tusks. But the finger Taime held was the biggest he had ever seen in his life. Taime collected what he could find and divided it amongst the three. “Never waste,” he said with a shrug.
The night passed quietly. Breakfast was dried meat and millet. The sky seemed clear for once although the winds still whipped up occasionally. The Samurai finally got a chance to survey the damage around the tower. Mud had made a ramp almost to the top of the tower, and the boulder that shattered had crushed the top edge of the tower. The ramp was still soft mud and the boulder’s path was still gouged in it. Taime poked at the mud with a spear, “The Kaiu never like coming way out here” he said kicking one of the loose tower stones off the edge, “Wonder if other towers have gotten beaten up this bad?”
Yoake saw several deer trying to navigate across the mud flow to safer ground. He nocked an arrow and took aim. The struggling deer sunk to their chests in the mud. He lowered his bow, “Not like we could go get it, and it might attract something worse,” he said disappointedly, “I have an idea, lets take a camping holiday.” His voice was cheerful as he pointed to the other side of the tower. “Maybe go all the way over there, I understand you can see the Crane lands from there,” Yoake gestured at the vista beyond the tower. Taime chuckled and threw a shovel toward him, “Go and clean your room, dreamer.”
After two more days things seemed to quiet down. There were rumbles and aftershocks, accompanied by mudslides or rolling boulders. A thin creek had formed to the right of the tower. It kept the mud soft but never flooded the tower. Zoko had cleared the roof of debris, and moved on to the area in front of the door. Yoake was amazed at the fragile looking man’s boundless energy. Picking up a shovel to help the Eta only drew a sharp glare. Zoko took the shovel from Yoake’s hand, pressed the Yumi to his chest and pointed to the mountain.
Yoake returned to the edge of the tower roof and sat. The Eta had cleared the roof very well. No stones remained to toss at the ground. He pulled the chunk of jade from the sack and examined it. The sky was clear, a gentle breeze brought nothing but the breeze. It seemed peaceful. He quickly replaced the jade with that thought. With a quick tug he closed the bag and looked up the mountain. “The last time I was bored, the Fortunes saw fit to repay my lack of appreciation,” Yoake spoke in a reverent tone while nocking an arrow, “Not again.” He turned his attention fully to the mountainside.
A few minutes later, Yoake’s focus was repaid by a rumbling of the earth. Steadying himself against the quake, he saw a boulder roll over an edge. But instead of speeding down the mountainside, the large dark rock stopped and rolled back up the over the edge. More rumbling ensued and Yoake swore he saw several boulders rolling on the edge. “Dairyo! Taime Yamijiai!” Yoake called. In seconds, Taime was at his side, arrow nocked, eyes focused up the mountain. Taime quickly looked over the perimeter of the tower. He saw the tower door being closed by Zoko, and he returned to Yoake’s side.
Rocks smashed against each other, and the rumbling continued. The two samurai moved back to the shelter covering the trapdoor and watched up the mountain. It was a long way up the mountain but small rocks peppered the tower. Boulders collided from either side of what now appeared to be a large stone figure walking on two legs. Yoake noticed that the creek beside the tower seemed to be flowing back up hill. This was followed by a wave of water that shattered the stone figure into rubble that washed down the hill side.
There was an eerie silence for several minutes, neither samurai moved save to make sure no one approached from other directions. Nothing moved over the edge. Yoake squinted and looked hard up the mountain again. Was there a figure standing far up there? “Zaken…” Yoake was cut short. “Sshhh” came from Taime who focused on the same point. “I think I see red, maybe?” Yoake whispered, and Taime grunted an agreement. Whatever, or whoever, was up there was not moving.
After some time, Yoake realized he had his bow mostly drawn, and he gently released the tension. “Maybe we can request a siege bow,” Yoake said looking to Taime. Taime’s face remained unmoved, “shhh” was his only reply. The bow in Taime’s hand drew some and his expression grimaced. Yoake quickly looked back up the mountain. The figure stood fully at the edge, too far to make any clear features except a bright red helmet. But the figure turned and disappeared back over the edge.
Taime used hand signals for Yoake to move baskets of arrows up to the edge. He also gestured at the poorly repaired edge of the tower. Yoake pushed some baskets that way. An assault up the mud ramp might be slow but a large enough force could quickly make it up here. Laying on his back behind the basket, he looked to the left and right of the tower. There was no sign of force from those sides. No sign of friend or foe thought Yoake. They were alone out here. Maybe Zoko could run to the next tower but that was miles away. Could he navigate the mud to even get away from here?
The trap door into the tower flipped open and a table slowly crept out onto the roof being pushed by Zoko’s spine as he climbed the ladder. Taime grinned “Your grandchildren will never believe you, except maybe your smell!” chiding the Eta, but quickly helping to position the table across the section of broken edge. “Laugh while you can…” Zoko said. “Tomorrow you will be dead,” all three ended the sentence together. The solidarity of the moment made Yoake blush. He looked to the eyes of Taime then Zoko and then grinned, “I hear Scorpions get big parties for their Genpuku,” he gestured all around him, “and miss all this? Not for a moment!” They all laughed.
They decided to risk lowering Zoko onto the mud ramp to test it. With a rope around the Eta he sank leg deep into the mud. He left his rope at about 50 paces; the mud was slightly firmer here. He carried a few baskets that were to be distance markers, and set one there to mark the edge of the mud field. Walking backwards with his eyes on Taime, he set down another basket when Taime signaled. Zoko repeated this two more times, then returned to his rope and was pulled back up. There was really only one path down from that edge. Now they had some idea of distance, and the baskets could be shot with a burning arrow to light a small area if need be.
Yoake and Taime watched but there was no sign of movement from the mountainside. A bird of prey swooped down and plucked a varmint from the hillside and disappeared. The sky turned reddish to their right as the sun started to sink beyond the mountains. Zoko proceeded to bring what furniture he could for the makeshift wall. The Eta brought the two rice and vegetables, with dried meat. He also made them mountain tea, a bitter brew from local roots, that woke them up. Zoko sat down in the shelter of the roof hatch and ate a bowl of millet. Yoake thanked the little man, and noted that it may have been the first time he had seen him stop moving, maybe in days. He chewed on his rice ball, then slid back to Zoko. “Here,” Yoake swapped his rice ball for the millet, “the Fortunes smile on us, and I am sure it is because of you.” The Eta returned an appreciative smile, which soured as he looked past Yoake.
Yoake laid flat and rolled to face Taime. Taime was fixedly staring up the mountainside but signalling for Yoake to move up. Taime then gently fanned the coals in the tiny covered brazier. Yoake crawled forward pulling several arrows with tar pitch rope wrapped around the heads. He set them near the brazier then looked around the edge of the overturned table. At a quick glance, Yoake could see four shapes separated by many paces trying to move down the washed out mountainside. He held four fingers to Taime who nodded in agreement. Taime took a quick look and held up five fingers, pointing one finger to his extreme right.
They both took a pitch arrow. Taime motioned for Yoake to take the high barrel. Yoake smirked to himself. if there was one thing he could do, he could shoot. Together they lit their arrows then rolled to either side of the table and shot at the baskets on the hillside. In the now dark of the hillside, flaming arrows flew to their marks and the set the baskets burning. Confused shouts rang out and several figures were caught in the fire’s light. An arrow struck the table causing the two samurai to roll back behind the shelter. Yoake reached around and pulled the arrow from the table. It looked like the kind of arrows Hiruma scouts make, crude but it was topped with an intricate iron head. He showed it to Taime. Laying on his back, Taime said, “Recognize it but who uses a head like this?” Yoake shrugged while readying another pitch arrow for the last barrel.
A whistling sound flew overhead and both men froze. Two quick thunks came from the table. Taime rolled quick for a look but saw nothing except one body retreating back up the mountain. Yoake whispered, “that sounded like one of our signal arrows, did I shoot one?” Taime shook his head, “I don’t know, it could be a trap. Get some rest and come get me in a few hours.” Yoake crawled back to the shelter.
He could hardly sleep. Taime poked him with his yumi and they traded places. Taime seemed to fall asleep right away. Yoake checked the mountainside every so often, but the baskets were hardly giving off any light. Morning light gave the mountains blazing tips against a intense blue. A quick shake of his head brought Yoake back from his dream of the Moon and Sun trying to stay together. A sense of panic hit him. How long was his mind drifting?
He quickly looked around the edge of the table, checking all the directions for signs of movement. He also saw that two arrows still pierced the table. He grabbed the closest arrow to him and ducked back behind the table. Same as the earlier arrow, looked like a Hiruma arrow but an intricate iron head. Who had that much iron that their scouts could have such expensive arrows? Yoake knew the mountains here were supposed to be a good source of iron.
There was one difference to this arrow. By the fletching there was a piece of paper wrapped and tied around the shaft. He pulled the paper off but it was still too dark to read. Yoake looked back at the shelter. Both Taime and Zoko were asleep. “Hey,” Yoake whispered. He snapped his fingers and made a cricket sound. Neither man moved. Yoake gently pulled his bow and stuck an arrow in one of the wooden support beams of the shelter. Taime was up in a kneeling position bow in hand. Zoko grunted, broke wind and rolled himself up in his blanket.
Yoake waved at Taime, and the scout crawled up to the table. “Look, whistler arrow, and a note, I am sure bears and boars use them,” Yoake said handing the paper over to Taime. Taime squinted at the paper. The writing was hasty, done in charcoal. But the dawn progressed and allowed enough light for him to make out the characters. “Yoake you may be wrong. I think Boar do use whistle arrow and notes,” Taime read the note to him:
My name is Heichi Yamatoshi. This is notification that the Heichi Clan will proceed to pay their due taxes to the Emperor. Any interference and we will overrun your tower and level it.
signed Heichi Yamtoshi
The two Samurai stared at each other. Taime threw a geta at Zoko, making a hard sound when it struck his head. Zoko rolled rubbing his head and looked at the Samurai. “Get a Mon, a banner, anything big with Clan mon! Do it now!” Taime said not guarding his voice. Zoko rolled out of his blanket and down the hatch into the tower. The two turned back and looked over the edge of the table. Up the mountainside, the two could see a single figure, wearing a red helmet.
Behind the man a line of armoured samurai, 20 or so, proceeded to fill the edge. They moved in a column down the now dry streambed with the red-helmeted one in the rear. The column made it halfway down, Yoake’s keen eyes spotted that the man was not wearing a helmet but had shocking red hair. “He is Kuni!” Yoake shouted and Taime looked over the top of the table. Taime agreed as the column got closer to the tower.
The samurai carried a variety of weapons but mostly curved pole arms. Several broke away from the column, having bows, and made a line across the hillside in front of the tower. Yoake kneeled behind the table nocking an arrow. Zoko appeared through the hatch carrying a screen with the Crab mon on it. Yoake let out a small laugh, and Taime just motioned for it. He set the screen in front of the table and then stood beside it. “Stop where you are,” Taime shouted “You are intruding into the territory of the our Lady Hida O-Ushi, Will you Identify yourselves?” Taime stood as tall as he could. “You aren’t tall enough to be a Hida,” Yoake joked. Taime kicked at Hiruma Yoake, “they don’t need to know that,” he said sideways, ”now shut up and make sure they aren’t trying to flank us.”
One man with a black banner stepped forward followed by two men with the bent polearms. The red haired Kuni joined him and they walked toward the tower. Making it as close as the muddy slope up to the tower, they stopped. The two men stepped in front of the the Kuni and man with the banner. They waited for a few minutes then the banner man spoke, “Do the minions of Hida O-Ushi have names? Do they always decorate their homes with wrecked furniture?” He spoke with an almost laugh in his tone, “My name is Heichi Yamatoshi, I may have been away for a while, but it seems the Crab still have,” he paused, ”poor taste in decoration. Some things do not change.” The man stepped in front of the guards. “To me, you look like brigands, and I have no love for brigands.” He rested his hand on his sword. Even at this distance, Taime could read the intention.
Taime let the screen fall forward, it crumpled as it hit the dirt. “My name is Hiruma Taime, and you trespass on the land I am sworn to protect. Even after earthquake and flood, our tower still stands, and we have more than enough provisions to last you out. Do not let appearances deceive you. I have a man here who will make you ‘One eyed Heichi Yamatoshi’.” Taime stepped his foot up on the table leg and leaned forward. He pointed at the mud field that separated them, “Did you make all this mess? I believe our Lady will not be pleased. I have heard she is known for her temper.” Taime mindlessly knocked dirt off the edge of the tower with his bow.
The man named Heichi Yamatoshi stood staring in disbelief at the man on the tower. He strode several paces and pushed the tsuba on his sword forward enough to expose the blade. Yoake popped up, arrow drawn. The two guards stepped up, but Heichi Yamatoshi barred the movement with his arms. He never took his eyes off Taime. He started to laugh out loud, “Yes you are Hiruma, Hida never would have lasted that long. No young man, I do not wish an eye patch today.” The guards looked somewhat confused but then relaxed. “Are you in need of any assistance? Any wounded from the earthquakes?” Heichi called up. “May we talk face to face?” he asked.
Taime stood and pointed around the sides of the tower. “The mud is still deep unless you can make it around to the front,” pointing around to the left. He saw that Yoake still had the bow drawn. “Stop that, you just prove you are from the countryside,” Taime said stepping in front of Yoakes arrow. Yoake looked incredulous, “I bet he doesn’t believe I could put his eye out.” Taime replied “And I bet you don’t know how many more men are up that hill, do you?” Yoake gently released the arrow and lowered his bow. “I think this side has mud that is less… muddy,” Taime shouted to the Heichi while looking over the edge of the tower. He turned to Zoko, “Start boiling a lot of water for tea.”
The group rounded the tower and made their way to the front. “I do apologize, my lord,” Taime said as he opened the front door. Heichi Yamatoshi entered with his two guards and looked at the tower’s inside. The Kuni stood outside looking at the field of mud and mumbling to himself. “I have never seen the inside of one of these,” the Heichi said nodding approvingly. “There has been no reliable open path to our town in some 15 winters. But I saw one of these when I walked out the last time.”
Taime and Yoake looked at one another, “You have been trapped in the mountains for 15 years?” Yoake choked out the question. The Heichi shrugged and laughed, “I would call it more isolated until the next big earthquake. But while we can, we do intend to pay the Emperor our taxes.” Taime offered the man tea, apologizing for the quality. Heichi set an ornate box on the table, “A gift for your hospitality.”
A knock at the tower door startled Yoake so that he jumped up with his bow ready. Zoko stared back to Taime, who nodded. Zoko pulled open the door, and an armoured samurai rushed in. “Heichi-sama, the first porters are outside,” he said and waited for a reply. “Very well” he said, ”detach 5 men to escort them to…” he paused and looked turned to Taime, “The closest road is? and to the closest settlement?” Taime chuckled, “I have a very competent scout here,“ slapping Yoake on the shoulder, “who needs some outdoor time.”
Heichi Yamatoshi stood and bowed, “Please excuse my rudeness. I must attend to matters, Gunsho assemble the men and await the Hiruma.” The messenger turned and ran out the door. Taime opened the box and found four carved Jade cups around an intricately carved Jade bowl, and he gasped. Heichi looked back, “A little something, but why we need to be careful and make sure our taxes are paid.” The two scouts stared, open mouthed. “Fifteen years…” was all Yoake could manage to say.
Yoake gathered some things and they walked out the door. In the short amount of time, a large number of peasants had appeared, all had baskets on their backs, or on poles. Pallets of iron bars, baskets of other raw materials, and boxes filled with what could only be jade were lined up ready to go. “That was… fast.” Taime mused. Heichi Yamatoshi turned, “When I said isolated until the next big earthquake, I meant it. An avalanche could mean we will not see our home again. So we move our people and possessions quickly.”
They watched as the Kuni shouted and earth lept clearing debris from the path. “Why not let him clear you a path?” Yoake questioned. Heichi Yamatoshi turned and said, ”Ah! Kuni Saname is quite powerful but…I can tell you have not grown up here. I think even the Crab would tire of the constant fighting between the Mountain’s kami and the Tainted kami. Kuni Saname came to us ten years ago, not sure if he was lost or looking for us, but even he could not stop the avalanches and earthquakes. And now he has decided to leave.” The Heichi shook his head as he watched the Kuni Shugenja perform his rituals. “We have two others that were born to us with his gift, and he taught them well, but he needed to return. Many of our visitors wish only to leave at their earliest convenience,” and he nodded just up the hill.
A group of five came off the hill and walked toward Heichi Yamatoshi. It was an odd collection, rather mismatched. In the lead, a samurai with the mon of the Usagi moved across the broken ground. It did not seem to deter him at all. Behind him a man carrying a spear, and he had a falcon on his shoulder. Yoake recalled that men like him came from the north, they were of the Toritaka clan, but of late had been taken in by the Crab clan. A woman behind him followed, pretty but her hair was very short. She wore simple clothes but Yoake did not recognize the mon she wore. Her eyes darted around the site and to the Falcon. She also seemed to be humming an unknown tune.
Behind the woman a curious man fell to his knees grasping at a shrub. He wore robes but his face was what stood out. His expression was of shear mortification. His hair was long and frayed and his face had designs drawn or tattooed on them. He had an eye patch and his other eye was moist with tears. His appearance made Yoake feel uneasy, something was not right about him.
The odd man drew a lizard from under the shrub, and started to weep out loud. Yoake reached back and tapped Taime, unable to take his eyes from the man. Taime quickly gained the same reaction. The two samurai stared at the curious man, as he examined the lizard from all angles.
The last person in the strange procession,a simple samurai, walked past the weeping figure and grabbed the lizard from his hand. The kneeling man wailed “Why!?, Why so young! He sees life from the other side !” sobbing with his face in his hands. The samurai continued walking as he discarded the lizard with a sideward toss. Shaking his head “Bah!” was all he said. The sobbing stopped and the robed man stood and walked on as if nothing had happened. He stopped a few steps later and followed Zoko around the front of the tower.
Taime watched as the samurai walked on. He appeared to be Ronin, no mon declared his allegiance. Getting Yoake’s attention, Taime tapped his own neck then shrugged in the ronin’s direction. The man had a mark on his neck, the mark of the Reclaimers, the nameless wanderers of the Plains of Thunder. No one really knew what to make of them, a general aura of sadness and ill will came from them. Some wandered the Plains of Thunder for years. Some samurai took it as a spiritual quest, a sign of piety. Taime thought it a sign that said let them go on their way. The ronin stopped a few extra steps behind the rest of his group.
The Usagi samurai stopped and bowed to Heichi Yamatoshi. “Thank you for your hospitality, We must be returning home. May your pass remain open, and your mines never run dry,” the Usagi said finishing with a bow. The band started to walk off and the Ronin coughed loudly. The group stopped and turned to see that the man was no longer pining for the lizard but seemed to be chewing on leaves he held in his hands and following the Eta. The woman jogged back to him and helped him up and walked him back toward the group. “Pardon Kuni Naku, he is in touch with his heritage,” The Usagi samurai said. “A little too in touch,” the ronin finished.
Kuni Saname turned to the Kuni Naku and yelled “Naku-chan, you tell Po I have not forgotten, and I still need five jars, no less. Do not let the old man tell you otherwise. Now begone with you.” He turned back to the scattering of earth and said no more. The five travelers wandered north at a good pace. They could maybe make sight of the great forest by nightfall, Yoake thought.
Yoake took in the curious scene, and turned back to Taime. “I think my father would agree this is a unique gempuku present,” Yoake stifled the laugh he desperately wanted to let out. Taime slapped his shoulder and pointed to the line of Heimin lined up and starting to walk off as well, “You heard the Kuni, begone with you, get them to the town, and then hurry back. It is springtime and the tower posts will rotate soon. You might go to the Wall! Sure, that cant compare to this! and anyway, you can’t leave me here alone with Zoko’s stink for too long!” They looked back at the tower door where Zoko shoveled dirt away, “Hmrph” he grunted, not looking up from his work.