Running Up That Hill
An Early Snow
(intro by kugelblitz, the rest by chickenhat)
Feather snows flying
Sharpness given new softness
Eyes look inside you
The snows are early, but this one will last a day, maybe melting in the low areas. The sky is the color of steel, holding promises.
One is a visitor who arrives unannounced at Last Light Castle, startling the bodyguards as he appears out of the blowing snow. Bokken are lowered and the Stone Dogs step back from the practice circle in the courtyard.
He wears a simple battered straw cape over his plain green and gold embroidered kimono. His swords are positioned just so. His face is calm, very calm. Another glance at his swords reveals the twisting dragon fittings of the Iron Mountain dojo. His straw hat appears newer than his cape as he tilts it back to reveal his completely bald scalp. He could be sixty or thirty. He is also barefoot.
“I am Mirumoto Wakio, and I am here to test you, Mirumoto Yonaka,” he looks calmly at you and waits, relaxed. “Are you ready?”
Yonaka tries not to let his face show it, but perhaps a bit of a smile flickers behind his eyes at the appearance of his guest. Bowing to the visitor, his bokken held to his side with his left hand, “Welcome to Last Light Keep, Mirumoto Wakio.”
“Mirumoto Yonaka, am I to understand you have learned so much in so little time?”, he cocks his head slightly. “Am I to understand the mist that drifts among the firs? Am I to feel the wind that rushes up the mountainsides?”
A slight pause. Sensei Mirumoto gazes at the Taisa keenly, taking in his stance, expression, breath. The very slightest of nods,
“Yes that will do fine. Tomorrow, at sunrise, you will run to the peaks of the closest three mountains, and kindle a fire there at the small shrine on each. Then puzzle out your destination, you must return here be by sunset.”
He turns and walks away. He will not answer any other questions.
The peaks loom in the flurries.
Neko is already away, her small cart with her, but the rest of her things left behind in a series of small boxes. Among them an old suit of light armor and an extra bow string. A new kimono not yet worn. A small pot with some kind of scented oil and a pair of chopsticks, one of which had been cracked and split and had been re-wrapped in silk thread. Perhaps it’s best that she isn’t here to distract him, he thinks, hoping that her journey is easier than her lessons. Better also that he won’t need to wonder if she is actually asleep when he would have kissed her on the forehead and whispered “Don’t follow.”
Yonaka finishes tying the sandals over the pair of tabi he wears and shrugs the padded Utaku coat over his shoulders, his braid of hair tucked underneath against his back. A daisho of bokken by his side and a pouch with a tinderbox in his sleeve he moves into the courtyard, fingers brushing against the old stones of the well as he passes by in the early morning dark.
He knows these hills, the shrines at each peak and each of the climbs he must make to reach them. The run can be done in a day by careful pacing, but just barely. And now Winter creeps closer and the days are short. The only question lingering in his mind is not whether he will succeed, but whether he is expected to fail.
There is a change in the air, subtle, barely a degree or two with the first hint of the sunrise. Yonaka takes one long breath and starts to walk at a brisk warm up pace towards the front gate. It’s only when he raises his head to look up at the path before him that he sees them. Hamiko and Torotaka, Susahiro and Kachisu, Mormo and Hiromata, Gojiko and Yamahiko; Stone Dogs waiting in two lines on either side of the gate. Grim nods from each as Kachisu speaks,
“You may walk by yourself, Lord, but you do not run alone.”
A wicked grin creeps onto Yonaka’s face as he gives the group a quick nod, then shouting “Hoh!” he sprints through the gate and down the hillside.
The first few miles are a blur of trees and melted snow, his breathing and his footsteps even and rhythmic, unending as the brush strokes taught by Master Aichi. This is a good run, he thinks, I should make the time to do this more often. Maybe this should be a run for the trainees.
The switchback towards the first peak, or at least the nearest peak, is easy at first. Yonaka knows at which point it gets more difficult and drops his one hand down for balance as he passes the white oak tree that marks the halfway point. Just a sapling when Yonaka was a boy, now the bark runs in long curves up the trunk and into the upper branches where an empty bird nest rests. He notices a piece of bark missing from around waist height, and then the footprints and the marks where someone had slipped in the new snow earlier.
As he had suspected they await in the small clearing by the shrine at the peak of the hill. Yonaka calls out to the three bushi and acknowledges them with a friendly smile, “You may want to stand out of the way. I have some small business here, but I will be gone in just a few seconds.” but they instead spread into a triangle formation in order to flank Yonaka as they start to draw their daisho of long and short bokken.
The Mirumoto Bushi attack, but Yonaka has his own daisho of bokken out in the blink of an eye, the defense kata already active and a defensive posture taken before they have cleared their own and he easily flicks away their first attempts to strike him. These are Mirumoto brothers in arms, so Yonaka decides to take it easy on the younger samurai and tags one on the shoulder, “You may withdraw now.” he calls to the defender, but he only seems to get angry and continues to press the attack. One still tries to maintain the flanking position while the other moves into a defensive guarding position for the other who then goes into a full attack, screaming as he does so while Yonaka is barely able to block the swing aimed at his skull.
So. This is how it shall be.
Yonaka strikes the flanking bushi in the katana hand, hard, disarming him with the sound of small bones breaking barely audible before the bushi screams and drops his short bokken in order to cradle his broken wrist with his remaining good hand.
The angry bushi screams again and Yonaka is not quite able to deflect the blow, the angled end of the bokken catching him on the ear and down onto his right shoulder. There’s a cold tickle as the blood from Yonaka’s ear runs down his neck and a familiar ache from his years at the Iron Dojo spreads down his arm.
This is taking too long, he thinks, time to make an end of it.
If he is correct the defender will still be concentrating on keeping the angry bushi safe so he can continue to attack with all his strength. All Yonaka has to do is be faster, which he is, focusing himself on the quick left side swing, a feint to throw off both opponents, and then overhead, pouring his strength into the blow which lands squarely on the angry bushi’s temple as his defender’s eyes go wide.
The defender watches for an instant too long as he adjusts into a fully defensive posture, his lips trying to form words which come out mostly as an unintelligible stutter which resolves into a yell of anguish as Yonaka’s bokken smashes into the poor bushi’s knee, then another scream while he is still prone as the next blow breaks a forearm.
“No time for this.” Yonaka mutters as he strikes the flint against steel into the kindling already arranged in the brazier. At least there was that much already done. Had there been nothing but wet wood this would have wasted even more time. Once finished he puts his hand to his neck and ear and looks at the smear of blood that comes away. He strides over to where the defender and flanker are checking on the angry bushi, a small trickle of blood coming from his nose.
“Does our brother Mirumoto live?”, Yonaka asks.
The smaller bushi with the broken wrist nods his head, “He will.”
Without another word Yonaka places his bokken back into his sash and starts back down the hill.
Kaito’s lessons are not forgot. The sandals removed, the tabi discarded, Yonaka creeps along the edge of the clearing with his bokken at the ready. Every patch of snow is a danger to his position as they may hide a stick that could snap or make a crunching sound that would reveal his position. The run from peak to peak was quick as the adrenalin from the fight helped speed his way and the warmth from the mid-day sun allowed him to shed the heavy padded coat, but the approach for the last hundred steps was fraught with delays as Yonaka avoided making sounds while at the same time avoiding the sight of the watchful pair of monks that await him.
Still no sign that they’ve seen him. Good. His feet can feel the chill coming up from the ground, but he sees the tattooed monks are also barefoot as well as bare headed. Then again, when are they not? Hopefully these two will have a little more honor and sense than the three at the first peak.
Heh. Honor and sense. She would laugh if she could read his thoughts right now. And the Mountain, he would call him a fool. Yonaka quietly places the edge of his bokken under the ear of the first monk, who only smiles and whispers “Hoh.” as he steps aside.
The second monk is not a swordsman, but he is a very good defensive fighter and manages to kick Yonaka in the stomach a couple of times as he grapples Yonaka’s katana arm and threatens to break it as he punches at Yonaka’s already bruised shoulder. What the monk forgets is that he fights a Mirumoto who has trained as hard with the short sword as he has with the long sword, and Yonaka teaches him that a free hand with a wakizashi is much more dangerous than a bound katana.
Yonaka stands and massages his aching shoulder as he walks to the shrine’s brazier and sets the kindling to flame. Turning around he sees the still conscious monk serenely waiting, possibly smiling.
“I do not know if it is allowed, but is there a way you can assist me in this test?”
“I can answer one question.”, the monk replies.
Yonaka considers for a moment, each second wasted is another that should be spent already heading down the hill.
“Who…” he starts before correcting himself, ”How many wait at the third peak?”
“Ichi.” says the monk, who nods and smiles as Yonaka turns to run down the path.
Ichi was first in his class, the year before Yonaka became Ichi of the Iron Mountain Dojo. It’s been a while, but he remembers how Mirumoto Reikun would place fairness above all else. Just as Yonaka could have been a priest, Reikun could have been an investigator. Sneaking up on the Ichi would have been wrong, and probably stupid, and if there is a one on one to be fought there may be another way to do this.
Reikun almost seems relieved when Yonaka enters the clearing as he smiles comfortably and offers up an almost obvious hint,
“I don’t have to beat you, I just have to stop you for long enough.”
He’s right, thinks Yonaka, if he stalls for long enough it doesn’t matter if the fire is lit I just won’t make it back to the castle in time. All he has to do is defend himself fully and stay in my way. Unless…
“Hai, but I am willing to find out if I can beat you. When was the last time we dueled?”, offers Yonaka as he assumes the stance. Reikun’s eyes give him away before his own stance gives the answer.
Both have grown in their own way since the days at the Iron Mountain Dojo, each focusing on their separate path, each now assessing the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Reikun looks carefully at Yonaka’s stance, the way he moved into position, the easy curl of the first fingers readying to grasp the bokken at his side. He sees that Yonaka’s reflexes are equal to almost any samurai. There is no threat there, merely a gamble as to how much his opponent has practiced and studied. Yonaka looks past the hands and arms of his opponent and into his eyes, into the spirit of a man who is stronger in this way than Yonaka is now. He sees the confidence there of a samurai who knows he has attained a greater balance than most, but Yonaka also has confidence in his own study of the art of the sword.
The moment takes less than a heartbeat as each focuses on the other, arms fold and unfold as creases in rice paper as bokken snap forth into the air and bodies sidestep at nearly the same instant.
The point of Yonaka’s katana bokken rests steadily underneath Reikun’s chin. It’s not a blade, but if Yonaka wanted to he could drive the angled wooden point up and into his opponent’s brain.
Silently Yonaka offers a prayer to his ancestors and the kami, please let him remember honor before all else.
Reikun slowly lets the point of his own bokken down from the empty space where Yonaka’s neck was meant to have been. He frowns, but then nods his head, the point of Yonaka’s bokken easing away.
The final fire lit, he runs.
The temperature is dropping and in bare feet without hat or cloak he runs. His feet ache as he pounds the dirt along the road going up towards the keep, breathing the harsh cold air that makes his lungs hurt as he blinks away tears that form unwillingly from the strain.
Seeing the sun starting to disappear over the horizon he despairs and falls to his knees, hands reaching forward to brace his body as he looks up towards the top of the hill. Too long he dawdled over trying to do things his way, he stayed too long. So close, if only he could be there before the sun fades with the last light… over “Last Light Castle”.
If any place in all of Rokugan could grant him blessings it would be this place, at this time, at the last light of the day. Failure will not be part of this test. Home will bring him through its doors, even in the dark.
With a Dragon’s roar he charges!
Still roaring, still running, Yonaka charges through the gate into the center of the courtyard. Those same men who witnessed the beginning of his journey are in their same places. Each of them along with a few more wait on one knee as Yonaka runs by. Other Stone Dogs are at ease, some gambling and possibly making odds as to the success or failure of their Taisa. More emerge at the sound of Yonaka’s shout, their faces a struggle to remain unreadable in his presence.
His sweat making steam as it meets the cold air and his chest pounding like a war drum he looks up at the banner that flies from the top of the highest tower.
For a moment the merest sliver of daylight stretches across the very top of the Stone Dogs banner, and then is gone.
From the back of the crowd gathered in the courtyard a single figure in bare feet and bald head approaches.
“Good. Lessons start tomorrow morning.”
Taking the next step
Broken habits grow new skills
Old pain is renewed