The Cold Hard Dawn
The samurai who stepped forward to greet them – like the rest of the samurai who stood and looked to the two riders – bore the standard of a coiled dragon, all in gold and green. The first rider wore a similar banner on his back but his was of a unicorn, noble and fierce and matching his colors of purple and gold. The third rider wore no banner at all. The two riders dismounted and the samurai bowed low to them both. As the samurai recovered from the bow, her eyes fell on the two riders and her delicate lips spoke. “Lord Shinjo”, she said to the samurai from the Unicorn Clan, “and Toturi-san,” she said to the other unadorned samurai. The two returned her bow.
“Samurai-maiden,” the Unicorn began.
“She is Lady Hitomi,” said Toturi, his voice low like thunder.
Lord Shinjo Yasamura smiled under his mustache, his gaze falling on Hitomi’s soft features, so contrasted by her hard eyes. “Lady Hitomi, I did not know the training for Dragon samurai began so young.”
As she spoke, Hitomi’s voice was as sweet as summer fruit, but her eyes as dark as Toturi’s. “Some must grow up sooner than others,” she said.
Toturi nodded and pointed back behind the samurai-maiden. “What do you think of that?” Both samurai turned to face the great mountains that reached up to the morning sky and the tight pass that stood before them.
“Only a few men at a time,” Hitomi said. “No room for riders.”
“Their cavalry cannot match ours,” Shinjo Yasamura said. “But even that is little comfort.
Toturi nodded. “We need more men. We need more time.”
“There is no time!” Hitomi’s voice nearly crackled with her anger. “With you it is always ‘Wait, be patient.’ Do you think the Crab armies are waiting? Do you think they are patient?”
“Their impatience will be to our advantage, Hitomi.” The calm in Toturi’s voice was enough to still her rage, but Toturi knew the rage inside a samurai driven by revenge would not sit still forever. “Regardless, we must take Beiden Pass from the Crab. The fate of the Empire depends upon it.”
Yasamura shook his head. “Easily said, Toturi. Not so easily accomplished.”
Toturi nodded. “I agree. That is why we must employ every advantage we have. The Dragon samurai are known for their strange understandings of magic.”
“It is our shugenja who are the spellcasters,” the Dragon samurai-maiden corrected. “We have developed their ways into our tactics, that is all.”
Toturi nodded. “I understand. You must teach me these tactics. I will need a full understanding of the shugenja” spell-casting ways to use them to full advantage.”
Hitomi nodded. “I shall.”
“Also, I shall need to speak to the Ise Zumi in your army.”
“The tattooed men,” Yasamura whispered. Toturi heard a slight tremble in the Unicorn’s voice as he spoke. Yes, the Dragon had many mysterious orders among their samurai. No other Clan was so enigmatic as the Dragon.
Hitomi spoke then. “Can we count on the strength of the Unicorn cavalry, Lord Yasamura?”
It seemed as if Hitomi’s words had broken him from a trance. “Yes. Yes you can. We will be ready.”
“Then go back to your horses,” Toturi said. “We must meet the Crab armies before they reach halfway through the Pass. Once they are entrenched, no amount of tactics will move them.”
Yasamura bowed to both samurai and mounted his horse in a single motion. Toturi watched him do it and was still uncertain how it was done. There are many things he could learn from both the Unicorn and the Dragon. He would need all of them to defeat the army that faced him on the other side of the Pass.
This time, it was Toturi’s turn to find Hitomi’s voice breaking him from a trance. He looked down on the samurai-maiden. “Yes, Lady Hitomi?”
Her eyes were a deep brown, nearly black, and Toturi suspected that the hate that was inside her may have something to do with their color. “This army was mine to command. Given to me by Togashi Yokuni himself as a gift given on the day of my gempukku.”
“Your coming of age ceremony, yes I know.”
Her eyes narrowed and her hand fell to the katana at her side. Toturi knew the question that was to be asked. “Then why, only one week ago, did he take it from me and give it to you, a dishonored coward?”
Toturi nodded. Two years ago, his katana would have flown from its sheath and sliced at her with all the rage and fury of a Lion samurai. But he was no longer a Lion samurai. He was a ronin. A warrior without honor, cast down from the Emperor’s grace.
“I was not always a ronin, Hitomi.”
Her hand never moved from her katana. “You were the Champion of the Lion Clan. You were the greatest general in the Empire. Now, you are nothing.”
“I am the general of his army, Hitomi. Your Lord Togashi Yokuni put me in this position. If you question my authority, you question his. Is that your intention?”
Toturi watched her eyes closely. He knew the rage she carried inside of her and was ready at any moment to defend her right to lead the army into battle against the Crab. The black fire in Hitomi’s eyes never faltered, but her hand moved slowly away from her katana and she took one step back as her body bent in a low bow. “I will acknowledge your right to lead the armies of the Dragon, fallen Lion, but if you fail us, it will not be a Crab that takes your life.”
“If I fail you, it will be my own steel that takes my life, Lady Hitomi.”
She nodded quickly and turned to walk back to the Dragons making ready for war. As she did, Toturi took a step forward and said, “I miss your brother, too Hitomi.”
The samurai-maiden stopped. Her whole body stiffened and her hand fell once again to the katana in her obi, but she did not turn.
“Is it true that you carry his blade with you?”
Her voice was hardly above a whisper. “Aye.”
“I need a samurai driven by courage, not by revenge. I need your strength, Hitomi, not your hatred.”
“You will get what I give you, ronin.”
Hitomi stood silent with her back to the him, then continued on her way back to the Dragon samurai. Toturi stood and watched her leave, then turned his attentions back to Beiden Pass. He had the Unicorn, the mightiest cavalry in the Empire. He had the enigmatic magic of the spell casting Dragon Shugenja and their equally mysterious samurai. And he had his Lion heritage, despite what any others may think. He was still a Lion, trained from birth to follow bushido, the way of the warrior.
“They may have taken away my name,” he said to the sunrise, “but they cannot take away my heart. They cannot take away what a hundred generations have given to me.”
Then he thought of the army on the other side of the Pass.
“And it still may not be enough,” he whispered. Suddenly, the morning air was very cold.
* * * * *
The Wounded Crab
Dawn was creeping up before his eyes, but the dark clouds so full of storm kept the golden rays from reaching the chilly morning soil. Yakamo watched the sunrise for a moment then reached down into the pot of water and splashed his face clean. But no matter how many times he rinsed his skin, he could not escape the putrid smell of death that clung to him like a blood bloated leech. The water felt good as it trickled down his face and over his lips.
The cool water had washed away the heavy lull of sleep, but the pain in his wrist remained. This morning – as it was all mornings – it was a dull throb that matched the pulse in his chest. By noon, it would be a raging bonfire, calmed only by the smooth salves and magical mutterings of Kuni Yori, his father’s most trusted Shugenja. For the thousandth time, he looked at the stump where his right hand should have been and he muttered the name of the samurai-maiden who took it from him.
A younger man approached him. He was dressed in a similar armor and his belt held a long sword and a short sword, the sign of a samurai. “My brother,” he said.
Yakamo did not turn. “Yes, Sukune?”
“The Dragon army has reached Otomo valley. They shall reach the opening of Beiden Pass by noon.”
Yakamo said nothing to his brother, only nodded. He felt his wet mustache against his cheeks and the cool of the water running down the hard angles of his back. Then, another voice called to him. This voice was not used to calling over armies as was Sukune’s, but was like the sound of a sharp blade on silk. “My lord&?” it asked tentatively.
Yakamo turned immediately, for he knew who the voice belonged to, and more importantly, what the shugenja was bringing for him. “Kuni Yori,” he said with his voice filled with anticipation.
The shugenja stood behind Sukune by almost five paces. Yakamo walked toward Yori, nearly pushing Sukune aside. “You have finished your work?” he asked, now looming over the thin frail figure.
“I have, my Lord. With the assistance of a&quiet ally.”
Yakamo could not care less how the item was finished. He looked down at the wrapped package in the shugenja’s hands and took with it with his own massive left. He quickly unwrapped the cloth until the huge claw was revealed. Yakamo smiled.
“It has been&enchanted with magics that I have only recently learned, my Lord. I am uncertain of its effectiveness.”
“Anything is better than a stump,” Yakamo said sharply.
“We must still attach it, my Lord. Again, a magical process that may cause you some significant&pain.”
“As quickly as possible. Toturi and his Dragons are nearly here.”
Quite suddenly, Yakamo looked up, looking at Sukune. “Why are you still here?”
The young samurai’s eyes filled with confusion. “My brother, I&?”
“Move your forces to the front of Beiden Pass. Keep him from gaining any ground. My army will arrive shortly.”
“But my brother, we will need your.”
“Now Sukune! Do not make me tell you again.”
Sukune stood silent for only a heartbeat, then he bowed and ran toward the direction of his waiting footmen.
As soon as he was out of sight, Kuni Yori whispered, “My Lord, I think he is beginning to suspect.”
The anger of Yakamo’s glare forced the Shugenja to take a single step back. “Just because your family has chosen to delve into dark secrets, Kuni Yori, and just because my father has allowed you to do so, do not think for a moment that I approve.” Yakamo approached the Shugenja and Yori took another step back. “DO not think that I do not know of the things you have bargained with to gain the powers that you have. My family has done battle with the Shadowlands for a thousand years. We need their strength now to claim the Throne from that pathetic weakling the Lion and Crane call an Emperor, but I assure you, when we have won the Throne, I will make certain that you and the rest of your kind are dealt with appropriately.”
“Those dark secrets,” Yori meekly said, “will give you something to fight with other than a stump.”
Yakamo looked again at the runes that were engraved in the claw he held in his left hand. His eyes then turned to the mewling Shugenja and back again to the claw. We will use their strength, he thought, and we will use their knowledge. But we do not need them. We do not need them.
“Forgive me if I speak out of turn,” Yori’s voice broke through Yakamo’s thoughts. “But our scouts have reported that Mirumoto Hitomi leads one of the contingents of Toturi’s Army, my Lord.”
The suddenness of Yakamo’s movement flung Kuni Yori to the ground. His eyes were filled with fire, his lips frothing with rage. “YOU!” He screamed at the fallen Shugenja. “You will gather your spellcasters together and perform the ritual immediately!”
Kuni Yori raised himself up from the damp morning earth and bowed low. “as you command, my Lord.” Then he turned and walked down the hill toward the small tent where his apprentices waited for him.
Yakamo turned once again to the rising sun and looked down at the force of samurai moving toward Beiden Pass. “Do not fail us, Sukune,” he said. “For the price of failure is greater than you could possibly imagine.”
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