Authors: Travis Heermann
Tags: #historical fantasy, fantasy, history, samurai, ronin, ninja, fox, green knight
THE RONIN AND THE GREEN MAIDEN
Copyright © 2013 by Travis Heermann
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical without explicit permission in writing from the Author or Publisher.
Bear Paw Publishing
Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. No similarity to persons or entities living or deceased is express or implied.
Ken’ishi pulled his coat tighter around him against the chill of winter. Clouds the color of sodden ash hung heavy in the sky, and the cold, wet wind seeped into his limbs in spite of the warmth of Thunder under him. Still a novice horseman, he wondered how long before his backside would become accustomed to the lacquered wooden saddle.
A woodcutter at the last crossroads had warned him the recent massive typhoon had caused a landslide that had obliterated the most direct road to his destination. His path now took him up a less-traveled road, into the more rugged reaches of the mountains, and added at least a day of travel time.
The weight of Silver Crane’s scabbard against his thigh and the rattle of arrows in the quiver on his saddle formed a great comfort. The path before him seemed to grow wilder with every passing ri. Brooms of pine needles edged ever closer to the road. Undergrowth encroached upon the dirt path that wound through the mountain pass and down into the river-ribboned valley below. Cold mist hugged the mountain sides like wisps of shredded silk. Monkeys screamed in the canopy, taunting travelers with raucous gibbering. Half of the mountain lay behind and above him, and the other half lay below him as he made his way toward the river in the valley’s crease.
He rounded a corner and reined up at what he saw.
A warrior stood in the middle of the road, standing as tall as the stallion, fully head and shoulders taller than Ken’ishi.
The man’s palms clasped the hilt of a
that stood to his chin, point down in the earth before him. One set of great callused knuckles flexed around the others. A dark, hooded gaze rose from the ground, fierce and glittering as it met Ken’ishi’s. The rest of his face was concealed behind an emerald-green iron
with the countenance of a fox. Long hair hung unkempt over the man’s meaty shoulders like a great mane. A threadbare robe of forest green was festooned with pine needles and bamboo leaves as if he had been rolling on the ground.
“Who goes there, samurai?” the man said.
“I am Ken’ishi, a ...” He had almost said
. “A vassal of Lord Otomo no Tsunetomo. In the eleventh month, I fought with the defense forces in Hakozaki and single-handedly slew over fifty barbarian invaders. I am the slayer of the demon bandit Hakamadare. Who are you?”
“Whither are you bound?”
“I am traveling to my lord’s estate to begin my service.”
“You are on the wrong road.” A grim menace rose in the man’s voice, pregnant with meaning.
“I have no choice. The storm closed the main road.” Ken’ishi frowned and placed his hand on Silver Crane’s hilt. “And you have not given your name, warrior.”
“My name is not important. All you need know is that this is my domain, and you shall not pass without a test.”
Wind moaned across the misty mountainside, filling the silence between them.
The stallion snorted and shook his head.
Finally, Ken’ishi eased the horse backward. “A test?”
Ken’ishi stiffened for a moment, then narrowed his eyes, stretching out with his awareness to encompass the massive boulder of a man blocking the road. Legs thick as tree trunks, arms corded with muscle, a deep powerful chest, and a sword worn from battle. The man stood with the immobility of a stone.
Sliding to the ground, Ken’ishi clamped his left hand around Silver Crane’s battered scabbard. “Very well.” He saw now that his nose met the level of the man’s breast bone. “If this is your wish.”
“You speak as if your victory is a foregone conclusion.”
“I fear no man in a duel.”
“Oho!” The man’s eyes smiled. “A brave warrior then!”
“A powerful warrior.”
“A virtuous warrior.”
“What are you playing at?” The challenge in the man’s voice grated across Ken’ishi’s nerves. “Do you dare to impugn my honor? I had no wish to slay you, but now—”
“Oho! A prickly warrior!”
“Enough!” Ken’ishi stepped toward him.
“Are you worthy to serve, samurai? Or will your suffering be your undoing?”
“What? You speak nonsense!”
The man laughed. “And now anger claims your composure. You are too easy to manipulate. Bah! Very well, here are my terms.”
Ken’ishi stood now just out of reach of the man’s greatsword. He could not deny that the man’s strange manner and words had unsettled him, pricked at things deep within that he could not name. He reached for the emptiness again and squeezed Silver Crane’s hilt with his right hand. The sword remained silent in his grip, quiescent, but attentive and sharp as a razor. Perhaps it was hungry for this man’s blood.
The man said, “I shall give you one free cut. In the future, at a time of my choosing, I will come to you and demand a return stroke, whereupon I will cut with all my might. A river of your blood will stain my blade.”
Ken’ishi considered this.
“Do you accept my terms?” the man said.
Ken’ishi drew his blade. “I do.”
“Then know that after your stroke, you are bound by honor to offer me a return stroke on the day of my choosing.” The man slid the massive great sword, with its blade as long as Ken’ishi was tall and as wide as his palm, into the long scabbard across his back. “You may have your stroke, samurai.”
Ken’ishi settled into the emptiness between moments, wariness tickling him, expectation of some trick tingling with unease up and down his back. He listened for warnings from the
, but the spirits of the wood and air and earth hung silent as well as if in rapt fascination or utter disregard of the outcome.
“What you waiting for, warrior?” the man said, his voice devoid of fear. “Take your stroke, or else I shall kill you on this road here and now.”
Ken’ishi raised Silver Crane’s curved, polished sheen high.
The man did not flinch.
Ken’ishi leaped forward, slashing. The man’s neck and spine offered hardly any resistance. Ken’ishi passed behind the man and stopped, recognizing the perfection of his cut.
He heard the man’s feet stumble. Something landed in the dirt and bobbled wetly.
He expected the sound of a body toppling like a felled tree, but it did not come. He spun just in time for a shock such as he had not experienced in more than three years. He saw the big man’s body still standing, saw the man’s severed head lying in the dirt, looking up at him dispassionately from a grotesque angle, saw the huge meaty hand reach down and pick up the head by the hair. The body turned to face Ken’ishi, and the hand raised the head to regard him.
“Well struck, samurai,” said the head. “I will return at a time of my choosing and claim my stroke. Until then, fare well, and guard your virtue.”
Ken’ishi tried to speak, but no words would come. A chill shot through him.
The towering headless shoulders turned away from him and strode away down the road, swinging the head lackadaisically, like a child with a bucket.
The man disappeared around the next bend in the road before Ken’ishi’s body reclaimed the will to move. He looked down at the blood on this blade, on the road, the dripping trail that followed the man’s path.
It had been real.
And the last time he had seen a headless body maintain its life had been during the horrific battle with the demon bandit Hakamadare, a battle that had only ended with the complete dismemberment of the demon’s body and the roasting of the head until it was nothing but a blackened skull.
This man did not seem to be an oni.
But what was he?
* * *
Ken’ishi’s wariness remained at high tension as he made his way down into the mountain valley. The silver-frothed river gushed and burbled down the rocky bed in the folds between mountains. Towering walls of pine trees loomed over him, shrouding their under-parts in cool shadow. The road followed the river but could hardly be called a road, little more than a pebbled trail encroached upon by mossy stones, grass, and wildflowers.
Much of the landscape around Hakozaki and the remains of Aoka had dimmed to the customary dull greens and browns of winter, but here the land was as lush and verdant as that of a perfect spring. The cold chill of the winter shores of Hakata Bay and the cold winds of the mountain pass were replaced by pleasant, moist warmth.
Thunder kept looking with hunger toward the lush grasses that lined the trailside.
“Steady,” Ken’ishi said. “We must be wary.”
“Bah!” the stallion said, tossing his head. “The man is gone, and I have not seen such tender grass since spring!”
“The Warrior’s Path does not allow for indulgence.”
The stallion snorted. “It might be said of warriors that few men indulge themselves more.”
They rounded a bend in the river and found a woman kneeling at the water’s edge filling her gourd.
The sight of the mounted samurai drew a gasp from her and she fell back. Under her broad-brimmed straw hat, Ken’ishi caught sight of wide eyes and beautiful countenance. Her glossy black hair was drawn into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. Robes of pale silk, woven with intricate patterns, draped from her shoulders. These were not the garments of a peasant woman.
She stood up and bowed. “Good day, sir.”
“Good day, lady. I apologize for startling you. I am Ken’ishi, a vassal of Lord Otomo no Tsunetomo.”
“Please be good to me. I am Midori.”
“Your name is ‘green’? A strange name.”
“Look closer, sir, and see why.” She slipped off her hat, fully revealing her face, a simple movement but so steeped in poise and delicacy that it held his rapt attention.
Ken’ishi’s breath caught at the sight of her. Only once before had he seen a woman so beautiful, and the splinter of his love for her still remained in his heart. Full lips, flawless cheeks, and eyes—
Her eyes were green.
Brimming with deep soulfulness, perhaps tinged with a bit of mournfulness, they regarded him as if she knew him and bore a strange cunning and wisdom that went beyond her indeterminate age.
He cleared his throat. “A lady of standing and wealth should not be traveling alone in the wilderness. Where are your guards?”
“Forgive me, but I am not a noble lady, nor am I rich. It is fortuitous, our meeting. I am traveling to Lord Tsunetomo’s castle to entreat to serve his wife as a handmaiden.”
“You have no husband? No protection? These mountains are full of bandits. I encountered one not two hours ago.”
She looked away, an expression as blank as slate settling over her face. Her head tilted forward, and she brushed a few strands of crow-black hair behind her ear with fingers long and slim and graceful.
“I am sure that Lord Tsunetomo’s wife would take a woman of your grace and beauty into service,” Ken’ishi said. “On my honor, I shall escort you there safely.”
Her face brightened like the sun emerging over a mountaintop. She clasped her hands over her heart and bowed.
He slid to the ground and offered her his hand that she might climb into the saddle.
* * *
For two more hours, Ken’ishi led the stallion and the lady down the path, but his alarm grew as the road became a trail, the trail became a footpath, and finally diminished altogether.