Chapter 1: Takumi
Takumi snapped awake, gasping for breath, the pounding hooves of galloping horses reverberating in his bones. The cold rain was plummeting down, pummeling the ground. So hard that it wouldn’t last for long. A cloud holds only so much rain, and what would last all day as a lazy drizzle would only last minutes coming down like this. He opened his mouth to catch the rain, still thirsty, and now hungry too. Sore, soaked and tired as well. But. Alive. He had survived the battle of Edo.
The battle. His pulse quickened and the lingering cobwebs of sleep sped away, in an instant Takumi was fully awake, alert, aware. The sound of the rain splashing down all around him began to crystallize. The rain began to soften, and as it did the he could hear it splashing into shallow puddles, fudding into mud, shiffing into grass, padding against leather and skin, and pinging against steel. Even rain has so many characters.
The battle had lasted only a day. It was Takumi’s first military action, and he knew he had fought well. Despite having to work with the simple spears given to farmer infantrymen, and being under the command of a puffed-up princeling. The mayor’s son was dead now, taken off his horse by an arrow, and quickly beheaded after that. The flow of the battle had favored the enemy early, and the Tokugawans had seized that fortune and ridden down the peasant infantry with heavy cavalry. The gaps this created in the Torohime lines turned a slight advantage into a decisive one. The lords loyal to Tokugawa rode after the cavalry charges, surrounded by their retinue of samurai, cleaving open the gaps in the line for their own infantry to follow after. The Torohime army began to disintegrate quickly. Well, that wasn’t quite right. The soldiers on the battlefield fought well, in many cases as well as their adversaries. But the Tokugawa charge had targeted the commanding officers and the communications and scouting units, so after the early morning charge and resultant destruction, the Torohime army was crippled. Unable to communicate battle plans effectively, an organized counterstrike or a tactical retreat was impossible. So, as the day wore on, the Torohime army bent under the pressure of the continued assault, and eventually broke. By sundown, the battle was over, the war was over, the stragglers left on the battlefield were there only for pride, or treasure, or some other necessity.
For instance, Takumi was there because of exhaustion, which had led to sleep. Most were there for death, though. The ground was littered with the dead and dying. The weak. But I am alive. Because I am strong...
But was that it? Was that what it boiled down to? No. I live. But I was lucky. And we lost. A failure.
Takumi had realized early on that tactically, the battle would be a disaster. The Tokugawans had the high ground. They had been entrenched in the area for nearly a week. And many of their infantry carried flintlock pistols. No good at a range of ten yards or more, but devastating from short range. The flintlocks took some time to reload, so in the heat of battle, they were only good for one shot. This limited their usefulness, but the impact of that first shot could be dramatic, especially considering the Torohime infantry was armed mostly with spears, and many of those were merely homemade bamboo spears. Takumi had only been grazed when the front lines crashed together, while many of his comrades had been blasted into oblivion.
In the ensuing chaos, Takumi had fought like a demon, until twilight faded into darkness, until he could not make out friend from foe. If they were even different. His own memory was still raw. The details of the fighting seemed distant, blurry. Much of it had been nothing but a blur, truthfully. How could you remember a blur? But there was something important. Something he needed to remember. Minato! We left the village to fight, to make names for ourselves. But we lost our first battle. And now our army has been obliterated. We failed so quickly, just having got here.
He needed to find Minato, and find a way back to the village. He stretched and took stock. He actually felt good. Sore all over, with aching arms and legs, but good. Starving, but good. The sleep, the cool rain, and the water had revitalized him. So the day after a battle is just like any other day. Hmm. He rocked up onto his heels, and surveyed the battlefield in the early gloaming. Men in every direction, splayed on the ground in odd poses. Some crows were working, but only the earliest risers. Takumi considered searching the corpses for food, but decided against it, reasoning that any soldier would have eaten what they had. Why save it and leave yourself weakened during battle? When you may not even survive to eat again anyway, the best course would be to eat everything you had. That’s what I would do, anyway. Not that I’ve ever had any extra food.
So, thirst quenched, stomach rumbling, Takumi stood and and started walking to the last place he had seen Minato.
Minato lay in the mud, face down, moaning softly. “Oh mother, forgive me, mother. You told me to stay. You told me war is for the foolish. For those who don’t value their own lives. How do you always know?”
He had left the village with Takumi to fight for his province. To protect his village. To make a name for himself. To prove himself as a man. But ... the violence and desperation of battle had shocked him, fear had seized him, and he had been an utterly insignificant part of the fight. When the wall of Tokugawa soldiers fired their guns, he had been knocked to the ground. At first, he thought he’d taken a bullet. When he realized he hadn’t, he decided to stay on the ground anyway. It’s only right, he reasoned, no sensible man would take a bamboo spear to attack soldiers armed with pistols. And of course he was right, it was the smart decision. But it was far from the decision he had envisioned he’d make.
After the initial clash, the battlefront swept past him, enemy soldiers pressing deep into the ranks of the village infantry. So he had crawled, slowly, oh so slowly. Nearly paralyzed with fear, knowing that at any moment, a stray soldier from either side could come across him and bury a katana in his back, he proceeded with the utmost caution. When he finally made it to the tree-line, the outskirts of the battle, he stopped, buried his face in the mud, and waited. The stress of the battle and the week long march leading up to it had taken their toll, and, miraculously, with ringing steel and gunpowder blasts resonating in the distance, Minato had slept.
Now, stirred from sleep by the breaking of the sun over the horizon, he could think of no better plan than to beg his mother for forgiveness, and the Buddha for a safe way back to the village. Even though the battle was over, for those on the losing side, the threat was still present. Bounty hunters would be looking for enemy soldiers to capture or kill for the victorious Tokugawans. Many lower ranking lords would be given the opportunity to show their newfound loyalty by turning their clansmen who had fought against Tokugawa over to him. Given all this, Minato considered waiting as long as he could before making a decision, to be the best decision.
The value of this assessment was soon called into question, as a large shadow approached, accompanied by the skrich skrich of wooden sandals in the dirt. Oh Otsu, forgive me. Otsu! His heart began hammering harder as the figure stopped somewhere nearby. But Minato remained still, face-down, in the mud. Surely I look as dead as any of the corpses here! Just continue on your way!
A spear tip slammed down right next to his face, burying itself to the hilt in the dirt, spraying his cheek with mud. Oh no! Refugee hunters! Did I flinch? Will the next strike be through my neck?!
“Look here,” the figure spoke, and Minato nearly fainted, “a survivor!”
Mom, Otsu, I’m sorry. I should never have left the village. His heart still hammered, and his mind raced for a way out of his predicament. Should he fight? Run? Negotiate? Continue to play dead? He would try to talk his way out of it. Not the most likely to succeed perhaps, but the least likely to fail. But no rush. The spear was still suck in the ground, maybe the hunter had seen movement elsewhere. Oh dear Lord, please watch over my mother.
Oh great Buddha, how does he know my name?
“I survived as well.”
What, this voice, it can’t be? I saw Takumi dive into the enemy ranks. He was surrounded and swarmed under before I hit the ground!
Curiosity won out over fear, and Minato flipped over, to find himself staring up at Takumi. “Takumi! You scared the hell out of me. Not funny, man!”
“Are you hurt?”
“Not funny dude! I thought you were about to kill me!”
“I couldn’t resist. It sounds like you’re alright.”
“I guess. My head is still throbbing, but that’s it I think.”
“Good. Come on, we have to get out of here, as far away from the battlefield as possible. Fast. Understand?”
“Yeah Takumi. Help me up.”
So they started back home, to Takayama village. They had marched a week to reach the battlefield, but that was before they were battleworn, and weary from lack of food. Takumi knew that it would be a difficult hike back, but by the next day, Minato had become desperate.
“Takumi, I think this is as far as I can go. All we’ve eaten these last few days is flowers and grassroot. I can hardly stand. Are you dizzy?”
He was right. Takumi hadn’t bothered trying to snare a rabbit or bird because he didn’t want to start a fire. And the fruit trees and small fields and gardens had been picked clean by passing armies. Minato had slumped down against the trunk of a cherry tree.
“No, but I’m hungry. Soon we’ll find a village and get some decent food. And hopefully some medicine for you. Here, up you go.”
Takumi took Minato’s arm over his shoulder, and they struggled forward, tromping over stands of wild grass, through old pine forests, the mountains towering to their east.
Hours later, some time after sunset, they began looking for a secluded spot to make camp. Takumi chose a stand of pines that provided a modicum of cover, and slid Minato off his shoulder.
“Ah, the red berries and grass are causing a slight problem. I’ll be back in a minute.” Minato shuffled away from the trees, to clear out his system.
“Dang Minato, you stink! I can smell that from here. And your butt sounds like a snorting mad warthog.” Takumi was retieing the bandage around his thigh. He had not noticed at first, but when they started their trek, blood had begun to seep out of a short wound. When it began to ache, he realized it was more than a slash; he had been stabbed by a spear. “It won’t be long brother. We’ll find a place to get some rest, and something to help your stomach. Buddha knows you and I both will be thankful for that!”
“Just kidding buddy. I know it’s no joke.”
“No, I ... is this ... making something of ourselves? Do you ... feel like a man since the fight?”
Takumi sat on a rock, silently pondering the question. He had had similar thoughts. Even if they had fought well. They had lost. Or had they? Was surviving the real victory? There had to be more to it than that.
“We left the village to come and be heroes, to show everyone that we could make a difference.” Minato paused to squirt out a little more. “We talked about taking the head of the enemy general. About cutting down the foes that opposed our lord. Instead, we mostly cut grass to make a path for the rest of the army. Then they gave us spears to fight against guns with. Guns! Had you ever even seen a gun?”
Takumi had seen a gun, one that his father had kept for a time. But he had never heard or seen one fired. Nor had he imagined the damage they could do. He had imagined something like the impact of an extremely well thrown star. Causing impact damage, or, perhaps, a small hole, similar to a thick stab wound. But they had blown men’s faces off. He had seen a man shot in the throat, and the back of his neck had quite literally exploded. He grunted in agreement.
“And now, through no fault of our own, we are failures, living like bandits. Hrrccchhhhh!”
He’s right. We are failures. But it’s not our fault. Odd. At least my bowels aren’t exploding like his. Yet.
That thought brought just a hint of a smile to Takumi’s face. Minato let an even louder fart loose, and Takumi nearly broke out laughing. Then he froze. That sound had come from behind him. He slid off the rock and peered around the tree.
A horse, not twenty feet away. His pulse quickened, and he shut his eyes tight, just for a moment. When he opened them, the night was brighter than it had before. Not just a horse. A well equipped horse. Spear bound to the saddle, as well as ruck sack and what looked like a battle helmet. But no rider in sight. He decided to creep toward the horse.
“Takumi. I don’t know if I’ll last much longer. I feel like I’m not going to make it home.” Minato still had his pants around his ankles, trying to get the last of the poison out. His deep sincerity was all the more remarkable because of this fact. “Takumi, if I don’t make it back ... If I die ... please take care of Otsu...”
“Survivor...”, a soft voice spoke directly behind Minato.
“You can’t fool me by changing your voice, you dumby. I won’t fall for it twice. Give me a break man. Are you trying to change the subject or something? Otsu is important to me. My Mom too. Just let me finish here and I’ll teach you a lesson in proper bathroom manners.”
“In fact, take a load of this! Hmmppphhhh! “ Minato strained and he shat right onto Takumi’’s sandaled feet. “Ah ha ha ha! Serves you right you punk!” Won’t be sneaking up on me again, will you Takumi. Ha!
Minato peeked behind to get a look at Takumi’s face as he said, “How do you like them apples, buddy...”, but stopped halfway through his sentence when he saw the metalwork of Samurai armor, as well as the glint of a Katana held high in the air.
What!? Minato dove forward just as the sword descended. A second later and he would have lost his head. He reached to pull up his pants and realized the Samurai hadn’t completely missed - his right forearm was sliced nearly to the bone, and had begun to spray blood. He jerked his pants up and grabbed his arm with his left hand instinctively.
But it had all taken too long, the Samurai had raised his sword again and was advancing swiftly towards Minato, who had only gotten to his knees. His eyes wide, he could envision his death by that blade, and he froze.
The blade rose higher, and the Samurai lunged. Minato couldn’t take his eyes off the blade. It started arcing down, but then, back, over the Samurai’s head, as his feet flew out from underneath him.
He slipped on my poop, and fell right in it. Don’t laugh! Minato struggled to his feet as the Samurai realized what he had fallen into. “You brat. I’m going to give you a slow and painful death for this.”
Minato was already awkwardly running away, while trying to get his pants tied above his hips. Where is Takumi!? “Takumi! Watch out! It’s the real thing - bounty hunters!” He reached the far side of the pine grove and stopped. He could hardly believe what he was seeing.
Takumi crept toward the horse, all his senses on high alert, scanning, listening, feeling the ground through his sandals. His sense of smell would be useless for some time though. Seeing no one, he rose by the horse’s side, and patted it gently. “Where’s your master, big guy?” Then, he spotted several more horses in the distance. Oh no. A whole band of what, Samurai? Four horses, but no horsemen. We may be in trouble. He surveyed the field again, and considered calling out to Minato, but decided against it. He wanted to stay hidden, if possible.
He stealthily circled around the pine grove, on the far side of the other horses. It didn’t work.
“You there, boy!” Takumi froze, searching for where the voice had come from. He saw movement among the trees, and two figures came into view. Their dark armor had helped them blend in with the pine trees. “What business do you have on this lonely road?”
Takumi thought for a moment. I could make a run for it. No no no. I can’t leave Minato. What if they’ve done something to him already. His blood, battlehot already, began to boil. No, calm down. I can’t just attack. Minato has the spear, the only weapon we took from the battlefield. He cursed himself for not scavenging while he had the chance.
“I’m only heading home, it’s been many days on the road, with a few yet to travel. You wouldn’t happen to have any food you could spare?”
“Not for you, you little puke. Or I should say, that depends. And don’t avoid my question. Where are you going home from?”
Takumi was willing to try and talk his way out of this predicament. But he wasn’t going to lie. Not for this dumb oaf. Not for a bully. A deep voice in the back of his mind reminded him - you killed many more than two just the other day. You know you can do it. Stop this facade and annihilate these men. He pushed it further back. “The Battle of Edo. You must have been there too.”
“Indeed I was. But I didn’t flee from the battle like a scared kitten.”
This guy is underestimating you... “I never fled. The battle was over. Everyone was dead or dying. I’m supposed to stay until I get permission to leave?”
“Fool. Of course you are! The loser has to do what the winner says! You went to battle without even knowing that much? Ha. Idiot. Well, don’t worry, I will teach you the laws of combat.”
“Stop, just stop. It was a fair fight. My side lost. Your side gets to choose the Emperor, and control the Capital. Isn’t that enough?”
The Samurai shouted, “No! It can never be enough. Until all those that rose in defiance of Tokugawa are dealt with.”
“I rose to protect my village, and to prove something to myself. Torohime, Tokugawa, I could care less about these names, of men that sit around in palaces all day, having never worked a day in the field, or spent the night alone on a mountain.”
The Samurai’s eyes bulged, and Takumi knew that what little chance he had had of talking his way out of this was gone. “You little whelp. I will teach you the value of the name Tokugawa.”, as he said this, he slowly drew out his katana, and began walking towards Takumi. “Tokugawa is our Lord and protector. His will is the will of the country! He upholds the law, and maintains justice throughout his lands. And now all the provinces will see the benefits of his judgment. But bugs like you, that don’t show him the proper respect, will be crushed.”
The other Samurai had spread out, to Takumi’s left. The big one still approached, and began to raise the blade high, an all out attacking stance. But he’s full of openings using that stance. He must have surmised that Takumi had no weapon, and therefore wouldn’t dare to strike at him. As he came within a sword’s length, A cry arose from the other side of the grove. Takumi thought he could make out the word ‘hunters’. He knew it was Minato’s voice though. Probably a warning. I’m surprised he could hear them over the sound of his flatulence. At least he’s alive yet.
“One of your traitor friends, dog? You’re both dead.” And the ronin swung his sword down. Or actually, he meant to. It only moved a few inches, as Takumi sprang at his attacker, grabbing his wrist and forearm, stopping his downstroke. The samurai was a large man, larger than his companion by far. But Takumi was just as big, if not bigger, despite only being seventeen. And Takumi was strong. Powerfully strong. Spending his youth in the mountains, climbing trees, swimming against rivers, learning that he had to kill to eat, all this had honed his reflexes and strength to the point that he had been the strongest in his village by far, probably by the time he was thirteen. Aside from his father. Which was another story.
The samurai was taken aback. As Takumi’s fingers dug into the man’s flesh, he sputtered his disbelief. That the boy in front of him was a man. That he was definitely not afraid. That he was the much stronger of the two. Out of the corner of his eye, Takumi caught sight of Minato, gaping at him. Get down brother, you’re in no shape to fight.
Takumi lifted the samurai’s arms over his head, nearly straightening them out. This allowed him to get nose to nose, eye to eye with the man. Their faces nearly touched. And he told him, “If you’re gonna try and kill me-”, he paused, wrenching his opponents arms even higher, pulling him almost onto his tiptoes, “- I’m gonna kill you.”
Takumi leaned his head back and snatched the man’s arms towards him, then rammed his head forward, smashing the ronin’s incoming nose with his forehead. Blood immediately started spewing out, but Takumi ignored it, shoving two fingers into the man’s broken nose and using the rest of his hand to grip his face. He took a swift glance to check on the other samurai, but he was frozen, eyes wide. Probably doesn’t believe what he sees. That’s ok. I’ ll show him soon enough. With a firm grip on the man’s face with his right hand, Takumi grabbed the man’s arm with his other hand, and lifted him, only just slightly, off the ground. Then, one, two, three steps, picking up speed, four, five, six steps, nearly sprinting, the man’s weight trying to fall actually helping Takumi run with him faster, they careened towards the rock he’d been bandaging his thigh on. A yard away from the rock, Takumi fell to his knees, using his weight, the samurai’s weight, and all of his power to smash the rock with the back of the ronin’s head. He timed it perfectly, as so often happened with Takumi. The back of the man’s skull cracked and broke just like a melon would, if you slammed it into a rock.
A halo of blood erupted around the man’s head, splattering Takumi. The man didn’t even twitch. Takumi looked up and saw Minato, being kicked to the ground by another samurai. Two more. The Samurai closest to Takumi had drawn his sword and faced up, aware of the danger he was in. He was in between Takumi and the Samurai trying to kill Mina. Takumi fixed him with a stare. It was a look with such killing intent it unnerved the man, and he was not as diligent as he normally would have been. For instance, he was not surveying the ground to make sure his footing was good. So he too, slipped on and fell in Mina’s excrement.
At any other time, Takumi would have laughed long and hard over this. Taking a fall in Mina’s droppings. Why had his friend not told him about this secret power? But Mina’s opponent was closing in. And with this ronin out of the way for a few seconds, Takumi could help his buddy. He grabbed a nearby rock, almost twice as large as a man’s head, heaved it over his head with two hands. and hurled it. Over the fallen, sewage splattered man, towards the Samurai facing Mina. The fallen ronin gasped, and as the rock closed in, the other Samurai turned just in time to be hit full on in the side of the face.
It was too large a rock to have been thrown with any speed, so it was not a crippling blow. But it had stunned the ronin, and it had gashed his forehead. The blood from the gash ran into his eyes, so he never saw the demon flying towards him, with a simple stick in his hand.
As soon as he released the rock, Takumi grabbed a branch, and sprang after it. He almost followed the same arc as the rock, rising in the air, then dipping down and smashing into the already bloody Samurai. As he came down, he swung the branch with full force, breaking it on the man’s head. He had been trying to hit the ronin exactly in the same spot where the rock had struck, in case his skull had cracked already. But the ronin twisted, instinctively, and Takumi missed his mark. It was a tremendous blow anyway, and the man was basically out on his feet, blood covering the whole of his face. However, he was not dead, possibly only stunned. Takumi looked at the broken branch left in his right hand. Put him out of his misery. He placed his palm on the base of the stick, gripped its center with his left hand, and put all of his weight and strength into driving the broken branch into the man’s adam’s apple. The splintered ends penetrated, but the branch was thick, so most of it did not pierce through.
Takumi let go and jumped back, assessing the Samurai. He was still on his feet, but the branch remained stuck in his throat, sticking straight out, parallel to the ground. He’s finished. Those were long splinters. One more. Move!
Takumi stole a quick glance at Minato, to make sure he was ok. His mouth was hanging open still, even wider than before. But he looked ok, no blood. Takumi swung his gaze back in time to see the dead on his feet Samurai sputter one last time before falling over backward. Past him, the other one was still sitting in Mina’s diarrhea, gaping just as much as Mina was. You should let him live. See how frightened he is. But he might report this. But he doesn’t even know our names. But he came to kill you. At the very least, he was fine with his crew killing you and Mina.
Takumi fixed the man with his eyes, and started towards him.
“Wha wha what are you ... some kind of demon ... are you Buddha’s vengeance?”, the last Samurai spoke softly as if not to profane the presence he was in. While he talked, Takumi bent down for a moment. “We were only ... doing our jobs...” But Takumi could see in his eyes that even he knew, this excuse was not enough.
The man was still sitting in Mina’s mess, frozen with fear. Didn’t think a true Samurai would act like this. Idiot! What the hell is a true Samurai?
“And you will continue to do your job.” Takumi now stood over the man, with two grapefruit sized rocks, one in each hand. “To uphold your emperor’s will. Or die trying.”
And with that, he descended on the man, and proved permanently, without possibility of further discussion, that among these, he was the strongest.