Monster Hunter Nation

The Drowning Empire, Episode 47: Brush & Ink, Axe & Armor, Part II

The Drowning Empire is a weekly serial based on the events which occured during the  Writer Nerd Game Night monthly Legend of the Five Rings game.  It is a tale of samurai adventure set in the magical world of Rokugan.

If you would like to read all of these in one convenient place, along with a bunch of additional game related stuff, behind the scenes info, and detailed session recaps, I’ve been posting everything to one thread on the L5R forum,  http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=295&t=101206

This is one of my absolute favorites. Pat Tracy wrote this fiction about his character’s estranged fiance. It is a 3 parter. All together it is a novella, and it is awesome. Pat is an extremely good writer.

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/the-drowning-empire-episode-46-brush-ink-axe-armor-part-i/

Brush and Ink, Axe and Armor, Part Two

The ground shook. Namori swung her horse around and looked back at Utaka Hina. The Battle Maiden’s eyes were wide. The sound of underbrush being pushed aside, of limbs being broken from the trees, filled the air. She’d often heard the noise of a cavalry charge, but this was deeper, more profound.

“What is it?” she mouthed.

The Utaka only gestured for her to swing wide and spur to the far bend in the trail, as were the other light horse. At the same time, the Maidens wheeled, moving in the opposite direction. Namori bent low over her horse’s neck and did as Hina directed. When she joined with the others, two to every one of the Maidens, the Shinjo among them brought out Yumi and a few Daikyu. The Moto favored short horn bows. She sat her horse and felt inadequate, as she had on other occasions where archery had been required.

Almost a hundred paces distant, she could see the Utaka preparing for one of their punishing charges, unlimbering swords and heavy spears. Their mighty horses stamped and snorted, crowded across the narrow trail so close that their rider’s knees brushed together.

The noise grew ever closer, ever more insistent. It was as if the Earth Dragon himself strode the jungle that day, walking on a hundred heavy feet. Namori’s mouth was dry, her hands damp, her armor seeming to chafe her suddenly. Some of the horses whickered and tried to shy away from the oncoming noise, but their riders kept them steady.

“Be ready, now. Any moment,” Moto Ta-Ichi, the leader of the light horse ordered. His horn bow was so stiff to pull that he could hold it by the limbs and have a boy of twelve stand upon the string, only to flex it half way. He seated the thumb ring and gripped the string, ready to draw back and let his arrow fly at whatever horror the jungle would spit up at them. Namori wondered if even his bow would avail them against whatever lumbered nearer.

The trees moved as if a wind caught at their fronds, and the booming shake of heavy footsteps seemed to cover the whole valley. Patches of something huge and gray flashed in the foliage. Then, it was upon them.

The head of a creature many times the size of a horse burst onto the path. Then another, and another, until the bony heads of dozens of elephants could be seen. Namori had seen an elephant a few times, their outlandish shape and improbable size, their skin as thick as ten layers of cow hide, but this…

Little boys and thin-boned old men squatted on the elephants’ necks, riding on bright colored boxes and piles of cloth. They seemed to guide the beasts with tiny sticks, though it was a mystery how such insignificant tools would change their course.

Namori blew out a breath. One of the elephant riding Ivendi nearest them looked as shocked to see Rokugani on the trail as they had been to encounter the elephant procession.

The Ivendi shouted something that sounded like, “Mahoot!” several times, as the elephants came to a halt, now completely occluding the roadway. After a few minutes, an old and emaciated Ivendi man appeared, walking toward them with his hands up, palms open to them, gibbering in a tongue that Namori couldn’t understand.

Ta-Ichi cast about him until he saw their Ivendi guide. “Jagdish, go see what the little man has to say,” the Gunso ordered.

Jagdish, whose family had once been royalty of sorts in this area, before the demons had come and annihilated their society, slipped from his horse and walked forward, confident as any samurai. He was a big, tall man, with supple limbs and dark skin. He did not seem to own any clothing that covered him from the waist up, but always appeared in a loose pair of pantaloons held up by a wide silk sash. He rested his hand upon the hilt of a thick, curved sword that the Ivendi called a tulwar.

The elephant rider fell to his knees and groveled on the dirt before Jagdish. The two men conversed in their nonsense tongue, Jagdish’s low grumble answering the frenzied yipping of the old man.

Jagdish returned to Ta-ichi. “The mahoot begs you to not shoot his elephants, for they will become angry and run off into the jungle.” Jagidish spoke Rokugani well enough, but always as if he had rocks in his mouth.

“What are they doing here, and with so many of the tuskers?” Ta-ichi asked.

“They make the great trek to the salt caves. Every fifth year, it has been thus, since the gods created the world in a breath of holy fire.”

“Where are these salt caves?” The gunso had a canny expression on his face. Salt fetched a fine price, everywhere inside the Empire and beyond.

“It is not spoken of. Only the mahoots know it.” Jagdish had agreed to serve the Unicorn, but no amount of talking, or even being beaten, seemed to impress upon him how best to act like a servant. Because the other Ivendi feared him and would act upon his word, and because he could fight like something spit up by Jigoku, this was largely ignored, as frustrating as it sometimes was. This was was not Toshi Ranbo. Rules became flexible here, so far from the seats of power.

“Would one of them tell, under duress?” Ta-Ichi asked.

Jagdish shrugged. “Doubtful. These are faithful men and boys. Those who train the mighty elephant cope with the thought of their own death early. Perhaps only one in three live to be old enough to take a wife. Even if you found the location, it is said that the jungle surrounding the salt caves is so perilous, so filled with poison serpents and other hazards that ones such as yourself would never pass through it.”

“You hint that the mighty Unicorn could not cope with whatever bog or snake might hide in the trees? Jagdish, I’ll have you beaten,” Ta-Ichi growled.

“Act as you must. I say only that you are not a jungle people. You would sicken with disease. Your horses would break their legs. Whatever profit you imagine you would gain, it would be gained at the cost of many lives. There are some places that the only safe passage is atop the elephant’s spine.”

Ta-Ichi pushed his lips together and smoothed his mustache. “Very well. Go and tell them to get their damned beasts out of our way with all possible haste.”

Soon, Jagdish had them moving again. It took the a quarter of an hour before the roadway was clear, and the surface had been seriously degraded in the section where the procession had passed.

“I hate the jungle,” Ta-Ichi. “We should have gone to war with the Lion and retaken Rich Frog. I would have lived or died inside the Empire, rather than sweating my heart out here in the forsaken hinterland.”

Some muttered assent, while others simply sat on their mounts and wiped moisture from their faces. Namori considered how best to make peace between two old opponents who seemed to prefer their own death to most other outcomes.

***

The campfire produced more smoke than light, and regardless of where Namori sat, her eyes stung and nose burned from the fumes of the wet wood fire. She chewed the remnant of a rice ball that had not been positively affected by the humid weather. A few of the light horse samurai sat by her, none of them particularly talkative after a sweltering day in which they’d seen evidence of bandits, but had fruitlessly searched for where their tracks led.

The Ivendi, Jagdish, walked toward her and sat nearby. He had something he’d killed in the jungle on a spit. After skinning it, its shape was indeterminate. He pushed the spit into the wet earth and set his meal to cooking. He had done no obeisance and asked no permission to do so. The nearby samurai bristled, but said nothing.

“They say that you have no bow,” Jagdish said, looking at her.

It took Namori a moment to realize that she was being addressed. Jagdish had never spoken to her. “I do not.”

He looked at her hands and her eyes in frank appraisal. “You are whole. Why not?”

“It is not proper for you to speak to Namori-san, Jagdish,” Shinjo Shou protested. “She is…” he trailed off, not quite knowing how to proceed.

Namori held up a hand. “It is all right, Shou-san. I am not offended.” She turned back to Jagdish. “I am not skilled with the bow.”

“You have tried to learn?”

She nodded. “To no avail. I have not seen you with a bow, either.”

Jagdish’s face quirked. “I have sworn that the next man I kill with a bow will be…someone who wronged me. I practice each day, and hunt for game, but I have an arrow that I have painted with a curse. One day, I will use it, and then your folk will see me no more.”

Namori wasn’t sure what she’d imagined he would say, but that had not been it. She threw away the remnant of her food and waited to see if the Ivendi would say more.

“When someone cannot shoot, it us because their eyes are wrong.” He gazed into the fire.

“My vision is clear,” Namori said, slightly indignant.

“Not like that. Their eyes are…wrong sided. Listen.” He made a triangle with his two hands, holding them out with elbows locked. “You do this.”

Namori saw that he wouldn’t be easily put off, so she imitated what he had done. Her thumbs formed the basis of a triangle, her index fingers forming the top sections.

“Now, frame the firelight and look at it through the gap.”

She did so, the flickering embers bright against the shadows of the twilight jungle.

“Keep looking through, and bring your hand closer, closer, closer.”

Namori brought her hands all the way to her face.

“See? Left eye, right hand. Your eyes are wrong-sided. You must shoot with the other hand, or aim will be no good.”

Namori considered this, and was about to respond when there was an outcry from the other side of the camp “We are attacked!” someone yelled. A thick blade burst from Shou’s neck, and he slumped down, eyes already glazing with death.

Jagdish exploded up from where he’d been squatting, the barbaric tulwar parting the night. The attacker who’d killed Shou was suddenly bereft of hands. Jagdish kicked the masked figure in the chest, and he sailed out of view. Namori remembered something that Vindicator Tanzen had said. “When in doubt, keep moving.”

She rolled from her seat next to the fire just as a spear thudded into the dirt. She reached back and pulled free her axe, placing her back against a tree. Chaotic fighting, shouts, and the screams of people injured or dying filled the darkness. Four masked figures materialized on the other side of the fire, all coming forward.

Namori turned her axe ninety degrees and stepped forward, swinging it low. The blade caught the embers of the firepit and caused them to burst into a stinging shower. The attackers shrank back and covered their eyes. She rushed at the far outside bandit, cutting him deeply on the thigh as she passed.

Utaka Hina opened a man’s neck with her scimitar nearby, and suddenly the camp was marshalled. A few more bandits were killed, but the bulk of them dissipated into the jungle when the full weight of the roused samurai came to bear.

Covered with ash, mud, and blood, Namori’s heart would not quit thundering. Her thighs quivered, and she knelt, the head of her masakari against the ground, its handle keeping her from crumpling all the way.

Utaka Hina squatted next to her. “Are you hurt?”

“N…no.”

Hina was gone in another moment, at the side of a samurai with a serious wound to his lower leg.

***

The eta that accompanied them had much to do at dawn, preparing shrouds for the samurai dead and hauling the enemy corpses to a long trench where they would be burned, then buried. Namori had never seen this level of casualties up close, and it was sobering to witness.

“It seems an unwise move for bandits to attack our camp as they did,” Namori said. Utaka Hina stood listlessly at her side, her eyes hollow with fatigue. No one had gotten any sleep the night before. Only the dead rested.

“This was no group of bandits. It was the Tigers of Kali-ma,” Jagdish said this quietly as he came to Namori’s side. His bare torso was splashed with blood, none of it his own.

“Who are they?”

His face bore a feral expression. He took a flask of some Ivendi spirit and threw down a swallow. “They killed my whole family. They believe that, if they kill enough, their god will tilt the table of the world and sweep it clean, so that only they remain. It is for them that I reserve my arrows.” He walked away, seemingly without direction.

“He is Ivendi. What does he know?” Utaka Hina asked.

“About this haunted place? Enough.” Namori went to pack up her things. It would be a long day’s ride.

***

The twilight of that day seemed a year in coming. Namori did not so much dismount as fall from her horse, and was hard pressed to remove the saddle from its back. Twice during the sullen evening meal, she found that she’d fallen into a fitful sleep and begun to relive the nightmarish battle of the previous night. She crawled into the Utaka tent and fell into sleep such that, when she awoke in the night, she could not immediately tell where she was, or even who she was.

Wiping her face, she exited the tent and used the small latrine that the eta had created for them. She was nearly at the tent again when a hand clamped over her face and wrenched her back. She went for her knife, but the attacker’s other hand trapped her wrist before she could. In a moment, she was catapulting backward through the jungle. Oddly, this event seemed to create no noise at all.

Several frantic seconds later, she was deposited on the ground. The tips of three swords touched her at neck, heart, and kidney. “Don’t scream. It will hardly rise to your throat before you are killed thrice-over,” a voice hissed.

“If you intend rape, you’ll find my corpse far more pliable to your touch,” she told them.

“Brave. Good.” One of her abductors prodded her with his toe, flipping her so that she was on her side. Another, the one she now faced, took a knee, his blade still touching her at the hollow of her neck. Now, she could see him by the light of the waxing moon. He wore a mask, a mempo. Her heart sank. A Spider Clan assassin.

“Ah, excellent. You’ve grasped the situation.” he said. “Don’t think that your life is so important as to merit our intrusion, little Unicorn. If it were, you would have never awakened, nor would any of your snoring Maiden bunkmates.”

“Why carry me off, then, servant of Daigotsu?”

“The will of a Spider cannot be so easily explained. For now, you need only carry this message to your leaders. We know where the Tiger’s lair lies. Here.” The Spider pressed a scroll case into her hands. “It is marked on that map. We give them to you, because it suits us.”

“Probably Spider trickery, an ambush,” Namori spat. She surprised herself with the venom on her words..

The Spider stood, elaborately putting his straight blade away. “Every morning and each night, little Unicorn, you survive on this soil because the Spider don’t wish you dead yet. We need no special, devious plan to leave you cold and broken, with empty eyes. You are swamp toads in our palms. To kill you, we could simply make a fist.”

The Spider took two steps back, and suddenly all three of them were simply gone, as if they had only existed in Namori’s mind. She climbed to her feet, got her bearings, and walked back to camp. She went to the gunso’s tent and called out for him. “Ta-Ichi-sama, something has happened. We must speak.”

***

From the head of the long valley, they could see what had once been a city of impressive size. The tops of ornate stone buildings poked up out of the jungle’s canopy here and there, and stone-cobbled roads could yet be traced, if one looked carefully.

There had been a long argument about coming this way, about going on the word of the duplicitous and vile Spider, but curiosity had won out in the end. After a tense conversation with the Utaka that Namori had not been privy to, Ta-Ichi indicated that they would search the ruins and attempt to root out the scum that had attacked them a few days previous.

“I don’t care if they’re just bandits, or some gajin cult. They will be sent to the lands of the dead either way,” he announced to the group at large.

As he rode by, the Gunso leaned in to give a meaningful look to Utaka Hina. “This one is to be guarded every minute. She is your responsibility.”

“Hai,” Hina said, bowing stiffly. She waited until he was well away and occupied to turn to Namori. “Please don’t make my job any more difficult than it must be, Namori-san.”

Namori felt herself begin to flush. Her hands were as fists upon her horse’s reins. She counted to five before answering. “I will take no unnecessary risks, Hina-san.”

“Good. This patrol…this is far more perilous than most. Going down there, into the city, this will be like war. I have seen you. You have spirit, and you’re clever, but you are not a bushi.”

“I will fight only when I must, Hina-san.” she swore. As a courtier, she knew that such nebulous terms meant nothing. She would fight when she chose. Namori hoped only that her choices would be wise ones.

***

A mist clung to the bottom of the valley, and with it, the lingering stench of rotting vegetation. Some darker aroma seem to hide behind the normal jungle scents, but Namori couldn’t name what it was. The uncanny hoots of jungle animals, as well as the calls of the colorful birds in the canopy filled the air.

Even the most talkative of their group had fallen silent, trying with all their might to pierce through into the dappled shadows at the side of the ancient thoroughfare where they rode. Utaka Hina rode next to her, a tall spear braced in her right stirrup, her eyes keen.

Namori was not a person prone to fear, but the ruins of the ancient Ivendi city had an atmosphere of such pervasive menace that she found herself constantly on guard, constantly swiveling her head back and forth. The fatigue of staying alert soon set in. Though she wanted to be aware of every brush of the jungle foliage upon the stone, every monkey howl, every fluttering of a bird’s wings, her mind wandered, her attention faltered. She began to wish that something would happen, even if that even worked to their detriment. The waiting, wondering when the enemy would strike–this was the most difficult thing.

Jagdish leaned in close, saying something to Ta-Ichi. The Gunso then called a halt. The horses stood listlessly in the sun. Warriors squinted against the sweat in their eyes. A few men slipped from their horses and went out to the front of one of the ruined buildings, looking at something. Namori couldn’t see what they were looking at, but they straightened, and their faces were pale and troubled on the return trip.

Jagdish responded to whatever the scouts reported to Ta-Ichi by reaching into his pack and pulling free a bow, which he strung with a clever trick involving twining one of his legs around the lower limb and pushing against his stirrup.

The company continued onward, the tension even thicker as they passed into the main part of the ancient city. Here, the stone buildings towered above them, now overgrown with jungle vines and tall shrubs. The paving stones were buckled and heaved in all directions from the encroaching jungle, making the way treacherous for the horses. Namori was hungry and tired, saddle weary and in poor humor. She had all but given up on the idea that there was anything here. If there had been, they were now gone. More likely, the Spider had sent them here for their own cryptic reasons.

These were her thoughts just before the jungle exploded with attackers, and the blood spilled, and the madness engulfed everyone.

***

Namori’s horse screamed as a short spear buried into its flank. Savages boiled out of the jungle on all sides. They were painted with colored clay in white, black, and orange stripes like a tiger, and wore fearsome helmets that made them look like creatures of Jigoku.

Her horse spun and wheeled, finally picking a direction and bolting into the foliage. Namori held on hard with her left hand and pulled free her axe with the right. The brush slapped against her face, a branch whipping her so hard that she was nearly unhorsed.

“Namori!” she heard behind her, followed by the heavy hoof beats of Utaka Hina’s horse. Things were too fraught for her to look back, and the jungle too thick to see anyway.

She came upon another of the attackers by surprise, kicking her heel out and knocking him flat with the power of her horse’s rush. She could feel the shock all the way up to her hip as he went down. In another moment, she was in the clear, on one of the shaded and overgrown side streets. A painted Ivendi cultist rushed at her with a huge club. Namori raised her masakari axe high and they came together. The axe plunged into the man’s flesh at the point between neck and shoulder. At the same time, his hammer hit square against her horse’s skull. The horse’s skull shattered audibly, and its legs folded up under it.

Then Namori was airborne, her axe still buried in her attacker, her mouth open in a scream she couldn’t quite vocalize. She flipped over, and the sky flashed by her, then flipped again, and saw the ground coming up far too quickly. She landed, skipped, and thudded to a stop. Everything went dark.

***

She was on her back, her body’s numbness giving way to pain in a dozen places. Her helmet had somehow stayed in place, hiding her face behind its long face shield. Her arms worked. Her legs…she had not yet tried. Namori slowly pulled her long knife from its sheath and hid it at her side, staying still.

Utaka Hina’s battle horse trotted by with no rider, seemingly unharmed. An Ivendi cultist tried to approach the animal, but it reared and flailed its hooves, and the cultist thought better of his course. His eyes fell upon her, and he crept closer. He had two short axes tucked into his sash, his hands resting upon them. On his head, he had a helm fashioned out of hardwood and painted to look like a tiger’s open maw. Streaks of white and black paste across his face and chest caused him to look altogether bestial.

The Ivendi approached her in the manner of a beast, circling slowly, stopping to watch before coming nearer. It was all that Namori could do to stay still.

“Keep your wits, keep your life,” she repeated over and over within her mind. She wouldn’t move, wouldn’t act before the time was right. It was oh so easy to say, and so difficult to accomplish when every fiber of her being wanted to either run or fight, not to lay there and pretend unconsciousness.

Finally, the cultist dropped to a knee beside her, poking at her with his hand, grabbing her in a tender place. He bared his teeth, leaning over her, his rancid breath on her neck.

Namori’s eyes, which had been veiled, opened and met his through the face guard of her helmet.

“Ah?” he managed before she plunged her long dagger upward and into his underarm, all the way to the hilt.

He did not die. Instead, he leaped upon her, his thick hands threading beneath her helm and grasping her neck. He squeezed so hard that the world turned pink, then gray in her vision. With the last bit of breath she had, Namori twisted the blade as hard as she could.

The Ivendi went limp, slumping atop her. A gout of blood came from his mouth, and a series of violent shivers coursed through his body. After a moment, he was still. Namori grunted, barely able to escape from beneath the suffocating freight of the cultist’s corpse.

Her hip twinged, but she was able to gain her feet. She pulled her dagger free and wiped it on the man’s pantaloons before putting it away. She looked around. Her ears told her that the battle had waned or moved further away at this point. No cultists were within sight, but that could change at any moment.

Only the eta were to touch dead flesh. It was unclean and could taint the spirit. Namori looked around. This was as close as she required to war, and she was alone. Rules were bent in war. With the toe of her riding boot, she managed to coax the short axes out of the dead Ivendi’s sash and onto the paving stones. They were hers a moment later.

Namori had no illusions. She had been lucky thus far. If she didn’t rejoin the group, though, she would not live to see another dawn.

***

Utaka Hina’s mount stood at the edge of the overgrown roadway, nipping tender bits of vegetation from the jungle’s verge and chewing thoughtfully. Namori approached the huge mare carefully, coming directly toward her eye with slow, deliberate steps. She could see the small muscles beneath the horse’s skin flex and relax, causing its sweaty hide to shimmer in the sun.

“You can trust me, horse. I’m a courtier.” The fact that she was covered in blood made her words lack credibility. The horse’s nostrils flared, and it stamped the ground as she got closer.

“Easy. Easy, now.” Namori eased her helmet off and held it under one arm. “I’m small, just a young girl who needs your help.”

The horse studied her, now more interested. Namori closed in, touching the horse on the neck gently, allowing it to push its big head against her, though it grated against newly-forming bruises. “There, now. We’ll get through this together. The savages would just roast your meat on a spit, anyway.”

Namori got the battle horse by the reins and walked it back the way she’d come. Her own horse lay there dead, its skull crushed. The sounds of fighting had died away by this time. She had no way of knowing where the enemy was, or how numerous. She pushed her helmet back on, did the grisly work necessary to regain her masakari from the corpse of the cultist nearby, and kept moving.

“We need to find your mistress, Big Lady. I’m going to call you Big Lady, if that’s all right.” The horse had become good natured at this point, and gave a flick of its chin that nearly lifted Namori out of her shoes. They came upon the signs of combat after another minute of walking, just around the corner and close to an alley that was nearly occluded with heavy foliage. One cultist was dead with a sword slash across the face, another bleeding hard and struggling against a wound that had severed his backbone just below the shoulder blades.

The wounded cultist looked back at Namori and the huge horse. His eyes were bright. He opened his mouth, filling his lungs to shout. She brought the masakari’s blade downward and divided his skull. It was a wet, strange sound. It always surprised her how easily bare flesh gave way before hardened steel, how suddenly life departed.

She was forced to put her foot against the dead man’s neck to wrench the axe free. She looked away in disgust as the innards of the cultist’s skull oozed from the wound. Utaka Hina was lying at the verge of the jungle, face down. An arrow protruded from her thigh, and one arm hung slack in a way that indicated that the bone inside was badly broken. Big Lady made a pained little sound when she saw Hina’s form, surging forward to her.

Namori looked around. She didn’t see anyone else. She knelt next to Hina, brushing her hair away from her face and putting a palm next to her mouth. The breath still came, but Hina was unconscious, blood crusted around her nose. Namori knew basic first aid, but this was very serious. She would have to do what she could and then try to get her atop the horse.

The arrow wasn’t deep, only a few inches into the muscle of the thigh. It didn’t look like a hooked head, just a piercing bronze point. Hina groaned, but didn’t rouse as it was pulled free. The bronze tip of the arrow was coated with some tarry substance. Likely poison. Namori snapped the tip of the arrow off and put it in a pocket. Perhaps the healer would know it and be able to prepare an antidote. For now, there wasn’t anything she could do but hurry.

Using Hina’s sash, she tied a few layers of binding around the wound. The blood leaked slow enough that it wasn’t her chief concern. With Hina’s scabbard, she braced the broken arm, doing as well as she could to not grind the broken bones upon one another.

Big Lady was such a massive horse that there was a lot of room behind the saddle. Namori strained, teeth gritted, as she got Hina’s limp form to a standing position. The battle horse somehow knew what she needed, and bowed its front legs down, allowing Namori to fold Hina across the saddle. She managed to push her backward to the horse’s rump after a few minutes of sweaty labor.

“How will I keep you from falling?” Namori whispered. There was no one there to answer. She went back to her own horse and cut free the reins. She was able to fashion a binding that hooked from Hina’s weapon belt to the back of the saddle. That would have to do.

“I hope the Utaka will forgive me,” Namori said to Big Lady. “But I need you now, as does your mistress.”

It was not easy to get up on such a tall horse, but Namori managed it after a few failed attempts. She was not used to having her legs pushed so wide apart, not used to being so high off the ground. She couldn’t think about that. She tightened her legs on Big Lady and the horse immediately broke into a gallop. It was all Namori could do to hang on.

***

“We did not expect to see you again, especially not astride a Utaka horse,” Ta-Ichi said. The group had taken casualties, with many wounded but still able to fight and a few dead. The cultists had been killed in great numbers and lay broken along the road. As befit samurai, all of this had been taken in stride, and there were no undue hysterics.

Namori’s dismount from the horse lacked grace, but it accomplished what it needed to. “I became separated from the group during the melee, but Utaka Hina came and saved my life. She was seriously injured in the action, however. She will need the shugenja’s aid.”

“She’ll have it.” Ta-Ichi squinted at her, but she didn’t believe that he sensed the deception in her words. It was a necessary fiction to preserve Hina-san’s honor, as she had been tasked with Namori’s care, not the other way around. She would have to use her well-learned politics in this case to make sure that everything looked proper to the outward observer.

Namori stood there, the stiffening of her injuries now making her miserable, her soul mute and numb. They led Big Lady away to where the healers were working. Hunger, pain, and fatigue closed around her. She wanted to lie down somewhere. She wanted food. She needed sake, not to mute the fires inside her, but to light them again, as they had guttered under a rain of blood.

While she stared at her own feet, a small group of Battle Maidens gathered. She acknowledged their presence and waited for what they would say. Only the Utaka and their grooms were to ride their steeds. There had been a need. In battle, there is no law. Tanzen-san had told her this, and she could not argue with the sentiment.

She swallowed. “Maidens. I apologize for what I have done. If I have wronged your school by my actions, please know that I will do whatever you deem necessary to atone.” Namori bowed low, though it cost her in pain.

The Maidens looked between themselves. “You rode on Hina-san’s steed with her. As you said, she rescued you. There is nothing unusual. We are pleased that both of you returned, as we thought you lost,” the spokeswoman for the group said, obviously pleased that she had been able to vaguely manipulate the facts to fit their honor. “We are not so foolish as to question the will of the Fortunes when our comrades are won back from the clutches of death.”

“Very well. I hope that the healers can bring her around. She fought with great potency and killed many enemies today. Hina-san is to be honored. I owe her my life.”

Many of the Utaka departed amicably at this time. One, a jovial and slightly stout Maiden, leaned in close. “What is said in public must be said. I understand this and will never repeat anything but the accepted story. Between us, however, I think that your heart beats to the Utaka rhythm, the beating of great hooves upon the soil. The Ide do not know what they have in you, Namori-san.”

***

The day’s light was beginning to wane. Those who would survive had done so, those who would not had slid into the realm of the dead despite any action by the healers. Hina rested quietly, the poison that had been on the cultist’s arrow having failed to do its work. Her eyes flickered open, and she saw Namori sitting nearby, eating a piece of dried meat. She had not inquired about its origin, nor argued when Jagdish had offered her a small flask of the potent fruit liquor from his saddle pack.

“You live,” Hina said. “How?”

“You rescued me. Heroically, and at the expense of your health. You will surely receive some accolades for your efforts.”

Hina studied her. “This is the story you’ve told?”

Namori nodded. “We both live, as does your horse. Everyone’s honor is preserved. You truly did fight valiantly.”

“You are a courtier, after all. Clever enough to bend the truth to whatever is most expedient.”

Namori took a deep swig of the Ivendi spirit. “I am glad you lived, Hina-san.” She got to her feet and limped away.

***

“Push them into the open, and we will destroy them.” These had been Moto Ta-Ichi’s words in the earliest glimmerings of dawn. It was mid-afternoon now, and Shinjo Namori had never been so exhausted in her life. The image her eyes captured of the world was thready, as if she looked through a mist. Her limbs were leaden, her head filled with wool.

She waited, concealed in a ruined building, just to the side of an archway. Jagdish the Ivendi guide was on the other side of the arch, his eyes hard and flat, consumed with wrath. Every building on the street was laced with Unicorn fighters, no doubt fighting off fatigue and holding their bows in sweating hands. Namori looked down at her own bow. It had been Shinjo Shou’s until a few days before. One of the Tigers of Kali-ma had slain him. He didn’t need it any more. With arrows in short supply, she had tried only one shot while drawing with her weaker left hand. It had felt strange and clumsy, but the arrow had gone more or less where she’d aimed. It could very well have been luck.

Namori blinked. It would be difficult to do anything but fall down in a heap if she had to wait much longer.

“The Tigers will go to meet their god soon,” Jagdish said. He held out a flask of the fruit liquor. Namori took a small drink. It burned like swallowing a live ember. She stretched her shoulders. If she ever got back to Journey’s end keep, she’d sleep for three days if she had to nail the door shut to do so.

Then came the thunder.

With the thunder, screaming.

The sound of the Utaka charge echoed across the silent ruin. The nearer sound of cultists running hard to try and hide amplified in the foreground. Ragged knots of cultists sprinted toward them, heedless of everything but the certain death that rode on the Utaka battle steeds behind them.

Namori looked to Jagdish. He nodded, pivoting from behind the archway and drawing back his bow in a single smooth movement. She did the same, the string digging into the leather thumb ring she wore, the strain of drawing a man’s stiff bow to the hollow of her cheekbone sending lightning flashes of pain across her bruised torso. Everything slowed down. Her hand relaxed, and the horn bow thrummed. She didn’t wait to see what the arrow did, but drew a second, a third, a fourth.

The street was quickly crowded with injured or dying cultists, arrows sticking out at random angles from their flailing bodies as they rolled and tumbled on the ruined paving stones. They were many, and some passed through the storm of arrows unscathed. As a handful of them were about to close, Jagdish screamed something in Ivendi, ripped his tulwar from its sheath, and rushed to meet them. He was quickly lost in the fray.

Ten paces distant, one of the cultists burst from the crowd and met her eye. He had wicked-looking daggers that curved forward in each hand.

“An axe is not a defensive weapon, Namori,” Vindicator Tenzen had said many times in their lessons. “Knives and swords are faster, clubs and spears easier. With an axe, you must strike first, strike hardest, and strike in a surprising manner.”

Namori threw the bow aside. Before she’d made a conscious decision to do so, she threw one of the short axes at the cultist. He managed to get one of his daggers in front of him, and deflected the throw. The axe still hit him with its flat side in the shoulder joint, spinning him sideways and slowing his progress. She threw the other small axe, and it hit him low on the hip, hard enough to deaden the joint and drop him to his knees. Namori felt herself rush forward, pulling free her masakari and holding it high.

The cultist crossed his two daggers in preparation to try to catch her downward strike. Just before she would have launched that very attack, she put her right foot out hard, pivoting on it and spinning a full rotation. As she spun, she sped the axe head into an almost-flat trajectory. When it hit, it was directly into the side of the cultist’s ribcage, and had every bit of energy her body had left behind it.

The axe handle shivered. Namori let out a grunt as all her impetus came to a halt in the enemy’s chest. Bones screamed against the steel as she pulled the weapon backward. The cultist’s eyes went dark and he slumped to the ground.

To her right, Jagdish was surrounded by bodies. A cultist ducked a lateral stroke from his tulwar, but Jagdish kicked upward and caught the man under the chin with such a vicious blow that the cultist’s feet left the ground. When he landed, he didn’t move. A cultist with a bladed club had been pretending death near Jagish’s feet, and surged up behind him.

“Jagdish!” Namori called.

The Ivendi guide turned, his tulwar’s dark metal flashing. The cultist’s head fell to earth and rolled to a stop next to Namori’s feet.

The Utaka rode down the rest. What their weapons missed, the hooves of their steeds found. One of them, a middle aged man with a broken Utaka spear through his gut, lay on the ground, writhing with the nearness of his death. Jagdish saw him and jogged over, stabbing his tulwar into the man’s face again and again. He reached down, pulling something from the man’s neck and tucking it into his sash.

The tall Ivendi, the match for any samurai in prowess, looked to Namori for just a moment. He nodded. She held up a hand in a brief wave. He walked into the underbrush. Namori imagined that it was the last any of them would see of him. The grim purpose that had kept him was now complete.

For the moment, so was hers. Namori went to the ruined archway and put her shoulders against the pitted stone. She let herself sag. When she hit the ground, she let herself fall to the side. All the actions of her comrades seemed strange and pointless when viewed sideways. She tried to laugh, but there was no laughter in her.

***

The streets of Journey’s End were abuzz with something. Something was happening, but Namori couldn’t say just what. People lined the road to watch their passing. She could hear distant whispers, little snippets of conversations. She rode Shinjo Shou’s horse, but she would be without one when she turned it over at the stables. Out of the madness of battle and blood, she would plunge back into the propriety and order of the court. She would put down her weapons and armor and take up the brush and ink once more. Could she do it? She didn’t know.

Namori watched the people, a mix of peasant and samurai, even a few gaijin, watch and gesture at the tattered procession as they rode by.

“Which one is she?” a voice asked.

“Perhaps her?” another said.

“She’s not a Utaka, fool.”

“Do you think she knows that he’s here?”

“How could she?”

This chatter went on. They neared the keep, and she saw an outrider coming hard, nearly trampling a peasant on his way. Their column came to a halt and the rider slid to a clattering stop before Moto Ta-Ichi. They passed quiet words for well over a minute. Ta-Ichi appeared surprised, then heartened by what he heard.

Ta-Ichi looked backward in the column, his eyes finding Namori. He extended his index finger in her direction, then motioned for her to come forward. She pushed through along the edge of the group until she could stand her horse next to his.

“Yes, Ta-Ichi-sama?” A thrill of fear went through her.

“It appears as if you have a visitor, Namori. Your betrothed, Moto Subotai is here, as are a company of his followers.”

Namori felt the blood rush to her face. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. “Ah…oh, my.”

He looked her over. “There’s nothing we can do about your appearance at this point. Hopefully, he won’t meet you by the stables. Rejoin your place in the column. I’m damned anxious to get back to the keep.”

Ta-Ichi stood up on his stirrups and shouted back to the column. “There’s a feast planned! Kohatsu-sama’s son has returned to him!”

There was a moment of confusion, then a ragged cheer. More than feasts, more than anything, they simply wanted rest, shade, food, and a moment without the prospect of death lingering over their heads.

All but Namori. She wanted only a clean kimono and time to wash, time to have Atsuko comb the tangles from her hair. She wanted to be…what she was when Subotai saw her again. “Perhaps this is what you are,” a little voice in her head spoke. There was no good argument against that.

It seemed like only a moment before they were passing into the huge courtyard that stood between the keep and the stables. Not enough time to think of something to say, some courtly method to explain her disheveled appearance, the dried evidence of blood on her armor, the savage axes on her belt, her feet astride a dead man’s horse.

There was only this, the muddy ground, the gaijin helmet on her head, the low ache of bruises at every corner of her. The horse halted, its reins being held now by a groom, ready to take it away to be washed and fed and made to recover its strength.

Namori looked to the side entrance to the keep, to the assembled group that waited there. Amongst the purple garb of the Unicorn, there was a knot of differing color. Several samurai with similar uniforms stood together. Upon a background of gray, clan colors and Mon stood out. Then she saw him. Subotai. He stood at the center of this group of coordinated young samurai, a look of cautious optimism on his face.

With the helm, he didn’t know her. Who would? She took a moment to catch her breath and watch, to try and let the blush that spread across her face subside. It was no good. Her heart beat like the horse drums on the steppes.

He was different. Not so young. More earnest. Still, he stood with his thumbs hooked in his sash, that air of unshakable confidence hanging about him. Why should he not be? He’d made something of himself. He’d done well, and was now back with his people to enjoy their accolades.

Namori eased the helmet from her head. She could see Subotai take a quick breath. A large samurai in Sparrow colors leaned in and said something to him, smiling. Subotai looked to the side, at the one he imagined to be his friend, the son of Akodo Goro. The Lion’s eyes were like chips of rock. He nodded slightly. If he spoke, she couldn’t see it.

She dismounted, using all her will to do it gracefully, not showing how much it hurt. She succeeded. Walking forward, she thought of what she might say, how she could greet this man who had said so much, written so faithfully to a woman who had spurned him and unleashed every monstrous thing she could dredge up against his honor. There was nothing.

In a moment, she was before him, bedraggled and beaten, dressed as a rough bushi after a difficult campaign. Namori took a breath. There was no sense in trying to maintain her face. A smile burst across it. She handed her gaijin helmet to the nearby Sparrow, took Subotai’s face in her hands, and kissed him.

Her betrothed returned the kiss, deepened it. He hoisted her off the ground and into his arms. The fatigue was gone. The pain, for a moment, forgotten. She pushed her fingers into his hair, needing him as close as he could possibly be. It felt right. It felt like coming home at last.

Subotai didn’t put her down. A little cheer went up through the crowd. When the kiss didn’t end, when she found her legs had wrapped around his hips and one of her axes had fallen to the boards of the entryway, people were encouraged to go on about their business.

Subotai carried her inside. She didn’t care where they were going. Namori knew what she wanted now, and it was going to change everything.

To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/the-drowning-empire-episode-48-brush-ink-axe-armor-part-iii/

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