The begining of a tale of Samurai.
Daimyo Matsuda Tadashi gazed down from the command post of his maku, his attention focused on the white plaster over loose stone walls of the castle set by the deep, dark river, the morning mist slowly withdrawing its tendrils. A channel ran before it, directing the river into a moat to guard Matsuda's current opponent. His campaign was a short wooden bridge from success. The only obstacle was a single samurai, a figure in black lacquered armour with a face protector the colour and design of a fleshless grin. The samurai had only drawn his sword as Matsuda advanced his army in a tight column through the plain before the castle. As the front line of eager samurai had marched across the bridge with their yari spears held ready, this black samurai had slipped past the points of his opponents' yari and sliced through the shafts just below the blade with a single twirl of his sword. Matsuda's samurai had beaten a hasty retreat and the siege had ground to a halt.
No arrows came from over the wall as Matsuda drew his army up before the small fort. Since the first abortive attempt to cross the moat, Matsuda's samurai started to test the lone samurai's ability. One man would advance on the lone samurai, who had taken the break afforded by the retreat to sheave his sword and retrieve a naginata with a gently curving blade from the fort side of the bridge. It didn't matter how the samurai were armed or how they advanced, each encounter ended the same, with a sweep of the long dark shaft or the metal capped butt into a sensitive area, each and every man found himself in the moat, splashing back to his unit.
After watching ten different samurai had met with an impromptu bath Matsuda grew restless. These bizarre tests of courage seemed to be keeping the spirits of both the samurai and the ashigaru foot soldiers quite high, but it was taking too long. Matsuda turned to his retainers, with a look and a gesture he sent Kumamoto Masashi forward.
Kumamoto was a huge, hairy man, his deep green armour straining around his thick body, a square flag imprinted with a bear's paw fluttered from his back. Another two defeated samurai had swam back as Kumamoto reached the front line. He leapt from his horse, the panting bay shivering in relief. Matsuda decided to reward Kumamoto with a stronger horse should he defeat this black samurai. Kumamoto slowly drew his huge no-dachi from his back, smirking as he held the long, curving blade up to his eyes.
"I am Kumamoto Masashi" he announced, "loyal retainer of the most excellent Daimyo Matsuda Tadashi." He swiped his sword down before him, the blade a great silver blur, flicking it back up to his shoulder before glaring at his opponent. The black samurai held the hardwood shaft of his naginata diagonally across his body, the blade just inches from the ground.
Before Kumamoto could advance a loud shout issued from within the fort, followed by the long, mournful call of a conch shell trumpet. The black samurai twirled his naginata upright as he straightened and calmly walked to the bridge's side fence and half sat upon it, resting the back of his naginata's blade against his shoulder. He glanced sideways at the huge Kumamoto. "If you plan on capturing this fort I won't stop you" he spoke flatly, "though I doubt you will find much of a fight. That call was the announcement of lord Tachiko's death." He nodded and watched as the first samurai marched forward and across the bridge, each watching the black samurai suspiciously. True to his word there was no resistance from the forts occupants. In the central courtyard they found lord Tachiko's body, dead as promised, kneeling but slumped forward beneath the lone sakura tree, dressed in white, almost priestly robes, his head placed neatly beside his body.
Kumamoto didn't follow the advance unit into the fort. Though he sheaved his sword he cracked his knuckles and asked "can we finish?" The stranger nodded and, placing his naginata on the floor he shifted his weight and held his open palms up before his chest in a ready stance. With a bellow, Kumamoto charged at the black samurai who slid sideways on his toes, sending the large man crashing into the barrier, the wood groaning in protest. The lone samurai slammed his flat palm into Kumamoto's back, pivoting the large man over the barrier and headfirst into the water. Kumamoto sputtered and splashed, paddling his way to the shore, a black gauntleted hand was there to greet him.
"Having fun splashing about Kuma-san?" With a grunt Kumamoto gripped the hand and hauled himself from the moat. "My name is Kurokawa Akio" he said, removing his grinning face-guard to reveal a handsome face "samurai of the most unfortunate Daimyo Tachiko." Kumamoto bowed stiffly with a grunt and shook his body, splattering water about.
"Why did you stop fighting Kurokawa-dono?" Matsuda and his other retainers had appeared behind the man in black armour. Matsuda Tadashi sat astride a powerful roan horse. His armour a shining red, with white antlers picked out in the lacquered surface, matching the white antlers sprouting from his helm. The black samurai looked up at the mounted Daimyo with a blank expression though his eyes shone.
"Tachiko-sama ordered me to hold the bridge until he had finished his seppuku" he spoke flatly again, showing possible distaste for the departed lord "once he was dead I saw no point in continuing. I followed my orders loyally, but now there is little point shedding blood in his name." he shrugged and glanced towards the fort pensively. Matsuda slumped in his saddle and brought his hand to stroke his neat beard, his gaze never leaving Kurokawa.
"You, Kurokawa-dono seem to be an honorable yet intelligent man, it would be a shame to see such a man become a ronin, would you join my forces?" he asked with his head held high. Kurokawa scratched his chin and looked over the fort. He turned back and locked eyes with Matsuda again.
"Great Daimyo, Matsuda-sama, what is a samurai with no lord to serve? I humbly accept your most generous offer and shall serve you with all my strength." He proclaimed, bowing like a reed before the wind.
The fort was surprisingly orderly as the invading army occupied it. Every person they encountered, whether ashigaru or not, surrendered readily, willingly offering their services. Some even seemed glad at the change in leadership. There was a marked contrast between the orderly, professional ashigaru of the Matsuda with their well-maintained red armour bearing Matuda's white antler mon upon their chest and conical helmets and the rough Tachiko ashigaru in their mismatched armour. A slender figure in black armour trotted hurriedly across the courtyard where the daimyo's life had ended. Kaze glanced left and right as she hurried, watching for a particular set of black armour from beneath the rim of her conical helmet. She found him conversing with a monk, whom she guessed was there to pray for the dead, leaving him with little to do as only Tachiko required his services.
Kurokawa Akio had his helmet dangling from one hand, his full head of black hair held back by a simple white band, his other hand resting on the shaft of his naginata, supporting his weight like a walking staff. He glanced from the monk as Kaze approached, with a smile he bowed and gave a word of farewell to the monk before strolling the short distance to his attendant.
"Kurokawa-sama," Kaze said as she knelt before her master, bowing her head. With smooth, practiced movements she took the blade cover for Kurokawa's naginata from her belt and held I up with both hands. "Is it true that Kurokawa-sama goes to join the victor of this battle?"
"It is true," answered Kurokawa, taking the cover and smoothly sliding it over the naginata's blade. "Matsuda-sama extended the offer personally. You may rise." He added as an afterthought, again leaning on his weapon.
"Excellent news, Kurokawa-sama," cheered Kaze as she rose, reaching under her armor to adjust her bust into a more comfortable position. Taking her helmet in both hands, her close cropped hair, large eyes and general good looks making a pair of Matsuda's ashigaru pause in they swaggered across the courtyard, she asked, "What tasks do you require of me, Kurokawa-sama?"
"Gather up everything," Kurokawa said with a nod, "Matsuda-sama has ordered me to accompany him back to his capital, and you'll of course accompany me." He gestured vaguely northeastward, "It's a town called Natsuyama, sounds like a nice place." He turned and placed his hand upon his chin, walking a couple paces, "I may have seen it before, from a distance of course."
"It's an honour to accompany Kurokawa-sama," Kaze said and bowed again. "And what about...?" Kaze finished the question with a glance to the white sheet covering Tachiko's body.
"Thanks for reminding me." Kurokawa reached into his armour and pulled out a white paper fan with dark metal struts, holding it out for Kaze, "Tachiko-sama did say that if you outlived him you could have this." Kurokawa chuckled to himself as Kaze hastily snatched it and stashed it in her armour, her cheeks going red. "Now to work with you, Matsuda-sama wishes to get away before the sun reaches its apex."
"Yes, Kurokawa-sama," Kaze answered with a quick bow before spinning on her heel trotting off, replacing her helmet as she went. Keeping a respectful distance from the body of Tachiko, She made for the keep, a simple three story affair with white walls and exposed beams. Inside ashigaru of both armies hurried about as they prepared to march, Matsuda having decided to take some of the defeated ashigaru with him while leaving some of his own with the fort, under a trusted retainer. She slid back the paper screens of the room Kurokawa had commandeered and set to work securing Kurokawa's belongings, small enough to fit in a wooden box that Kaze easily carried on her back. Tying the tiny cloth sack of her own possessions to her belt she left for the stables to prepare Kurokawa's horse.
A crowd had gathered outside the stables, accompanied by frantic voices and wild neighing. Kaze pushed her way through the crowd to see a pair of Matsuda's ashigaru trying to get control of a magnificent bay horse, a horse intent on bolting. Kaze calmly walked past the scene, barely sparing a glance as she marched into the stables. The boxes were dark and empty, the horses having left with their masters the night before, even the distinguishing crests upon each box had been prized off save Tachiko's and Kurokawa's. Kaze counted each box off as she walked down until she came to the only crest that remained, a white square with an undulating black line dividing it vertically. Slowly the white face of Kurokawa's black horse emerged from the shadows of its box, lazily chewing a bit of straw as it stared at Kaze. She gently ran a hand through its mane as her free hand began pulling the Kurokawa crest free.
"Time to leave Zenji," Kaze told the horse as she gathered its tack. Zenji stood there as Kaze kitted him up, finishing his mouthful of straw before she put the bridal on him. With a gentle tug Kaze led him back out into the sun, the horse determined to go as slow as possible. The Magnificent bay was now calmly eating from the hand of a samurai in green armour while another samurai admonished the two ashigaru. Kaze laughed softly to herself as she returned to where she had left Kurokawa. He now sat upon a blanket, legs folded and hands forming a circle in his lap in a pose of mediation. He now had his sashimono secured to his back, a tall, thin and white nobori flag split vertically by a wavy black line. He glanced up as Kaze approached with his horse, clambering to his feet as she bowed at the waist.
Somewhere beyond the walls the long call of a conch shell trumpet sounded. All around the castle ashigaru and samurai began to file towards the main gate to assemble for the long march home to Natsuyama.
Once again Matsuda Tadashi found himself gazing down upon the small castle. On the plain before him his army mustered itself for the march back to Natsuyama. As the Matsuda watched a black samurai with a predominately white sashimono flag rode out on a black horse, beside him trotted an ashigaru in black armour. Matsuda chuckled as he recognized Kurokawa. He ran a hand over his shaven pate and down his well-kept hair as he began to ponder. Slowly a cup edged into view beside him. "Thank you, Torii," Matsuda said, turning on his camp stool to look up as his attendant bowed.
Torii Narumi, whose father had just been granted stewardship of the new castle, smiled as she came up from her bow. She was a pretty girl even in her current functional clothing with the tray held before her. "Did you enjoy the battle Matsuda-sama?"
"That was no battle," Matsuda snorted with a flick of his command baton, "that was a game for the ashigaru." He scratched his chin with his baton as he thought. "This Kurokawa person seemed to be having fun; I'm just wondering why he was the only samurai left."
"This one has asked around about just that Matsuda-sama," Nobu Manabu, a small man in the flashy clothing of a courtier, trotted into the maku and, dropping to one knee, bowed, proudly displaying his shaven pate. He glanced up before speaking "this one took the liberty of speaking to some of the defeated ashigaru who say the other samurai simply vanished sometime last night. It would appear that this Kurokawa either decided to stay or was deliberately left behind."
"What did we truly gain here today?" Matsuda asked directing his question at no one in particular, a wistful feeling welling up in his chest.
"Tachiko's defeat means Miyazaki province has been united fully," Nobu answered, pulling a ledger from his belt, "Four villages supporting numerous resources, not least of which being the fish from the lower Tetsukawa River behind the castle." He continued to flick through the ledger. "Though the samurai fled we acquired ninety seven ashigaru of various uses. Treasures hoarded by Tachiko and the castle itself, all with minimal losses from this final campaign. It seems the gods of war smile upon Matsuda-sama." He closed the ledger and bowed as Matsuda chuckled.
"That sounds about right," Matsuda chuckled as he handed his cup to Torii. He marched from the maku followed by his horse guards who had kept a silent vigil. With the assistance of an ashigaru he mounted his horse and called to his bodyguards, "Though we have gained victory over another enemy we must never forget those who gave their lives to see it realized, to do so would be an insult and call their wrath upon us. Now let us be away, we shall properly celebrate this victory at Natsuyama so our women and children might bask in our glory." A cheer erupted from the horseguards followed by cheers from the rapidly forming army at his back.