Chapter Fifty-Two: Gossamer Wings
"Kyuden Tonbo fell to fury and hatred."
Once, they had been beautiful lands; even in the war against the Naga, the holdings of the Tonbo had somehow managed to flourish and shine. The small clan had existed as a testimony to the power of their parents, the Dragon and the Phoenix, a bond meant to be eternal between the mountain clan and the rest of Rokugan.
Now, those days were gone. In the name of ancient names and long-dead insults, the vast armies of the Lion had fallen upon their tiny neighbors, using the aid of the Phoenix to tear down great sections of the ancient walls. For the honor of his ancestors Akodo Ijiasu had crushed the small forces of the Dragonfly, cleansing a loss of face in a great sacrifice of Tonbo blood.
Ujirou's foot crushed a piece of withered pottery, causing the young bushi to pause. As he drew his foot back the boy saw the broken end of a katana half-buried to one side of the worn dirt road. There was still some green cloth that held to it, a small, dirty reminder of the clan the sword had served.
His sensei knelt and removed the dirty weapon, considering its broken edge with a sad sigh.
"We will spend the night in the ruins of Kyuden Tonbo, Ujirou-san," he said after a moment, pausing long enough to stow the ruined sword.
The boy nodded to his sensei and continued walking, his large eyes unaccustomed to the aftermath of war. A heavy silence seemed to hang about the lands of the Dragonfly, choking off the sounds of even the winds that rose from the northern mountains, mourning the dead with only the occasional wolf howl.
"I do not like this place, Koshin-sensei," the boy said after a moment, noticing that without thinking he had placed one hand on his sword. "It smells…like blood."
The ronin turned to his student, stooping to free another shattered Tonbo sword, "You are learning quickly what it takes to survive in this world, Ujirou…trust your senses to help you at all times. But in this case, we have little choice in the matter; this is one of the few roads that leads to the Dragon which is not barred by Lion patrols."
"There is no evil here that man has not planted, Ujirou-san. You decide whether that is more or less reason for fear."
The boy knelt, retrieving a notched and bloodied wakizashi, "Why did they do this, Koshin-sensei?"
The wanderer shook his head slowly, "Old wounds only heal if you let them. The Lion have always known how to make them, but never how to make them mend."
By the time that night had fallen on the outer ruins of Kyuden Tonbo, Koshin and Ujirou had amassed the pieces of thirty-seven swords. At one end of their small, lonely fire the samurai laid them out, one by one, examining the weapons as Ujirou unpacked the food that they had bought in the last Lion village.
"A few of these swords might be salvaged," Koshin said with a smile, holing up a notched and battered long blade. "We should do our best to try and return them to their owners."
Ujirou nodded with a smile, at the moment more interested in the slowly warming food. The fire was quite hot when compared to the night's cool darkness, though the shadows of the ruins still unnerved the Daidoji boy. "But how will we find the Tonbo, Koshin-sensei? The peasants told us that they were driven into the hills."
The ronin let out a sigh and a nod, "I suppose you are right, Ujirou. Even so, we will take these swords with us. Nikkan will know what to do with them, even if we do not."
"Nikkan?" Ujirou plopped down on a nearby rock, pouring some rice and offering it to his teacher. "Who is Nikkan, Koshin-sensei?" The wanderer was remarkably close-mouthed about anything about his history; he had barely even mentioned anything about the duel with the Lion woman back in Foshi. The boy had learned to jump for what openings there were to be had, and this time he leapt fast and hard.
"Nikkan is a complicated person…he is my oldest friend. You will learn that there are a few precious people in the world who understand you, Ujirou," his voice grew distant, as if he had seen something in the darkness, far away, "Nikkan was the first."
Ujirou's mind was already filled with images of a great and powerful warrior, fearlessly flashing Niten's two swords, "So he is a great warrior, Koshin-sensei?"
"It all depends on the battlefield," the ronin replied with a grin.
The boy had a hundred more questions, but at that moment the wind began to rise. Buffeted, the small fire lashed and roared like a weak and dying ember, and Ujirou felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. In the distance, there came the sound of tightening bowstrings, but even as the Daidoji reached for his katana, his sensei made no motion to reach for his swords.
"Be calm, Ujirou-san; the Tonbo are here." To the darkness, Koshin said loudly, "You may come out; the two of us are nothing to fear."
Even though he had sensed them, the boy was startled to see how close the eight Tonbo had come. Dressed in battered green armor, their dirty, tired faces were cautious as they rose from their positions behind stones and shadows, the keen edges of their bowstrings shining in the firelight like the flashing of gossamer wings. Koshin rose and bowed low to the leader of the group, a small, mustached elder man.
"My name is Tonbo Josai," the man said with a rasping, tired voice. "What are you doing here, ronin-san?"
"I am Koshin, and this is Daidoji Ujirou, my student." The swordsman moved over to the neat row of wasted katana, "We have recovered these from the mud of the road, Josai-san. They are the souls of your warriors…"
Josai's eyes flittered about the darkness, searching the shadows for some other danger beyond. "You waste your good intentions, Koshin-san; those who are broken lost more than just their swords. Ijiasu was…thorough in his duty."
"Even so," the ronin replied to the bushi, "they are yours and no others."
The Dragonfly laughed as Koshin helped Ujirou to wrap the swords for his men to carry, removing his kabuto to wipe the sweat away. Beneath the helmet, the bushi's hair was thin and grey, the firelight revealing wrinkles that the ronin knew had not been there a few months ago. "We come hunting Lions, and instead we find our swords."
"The Lion have withdrawn from Tonbo territories," Koshin told the Dragonfly. "They fight for their lands and people against the attacks of the Tsuno."
"Let the Tsuno have the 'honorable' Lion; they can suffer under a sword just the same," Josai spat. Friendlier, he bowed to Koshin and Ujirou, asking them all about their journey and where the two of them were bound. At the end of their story the Dragonfly nodded, "The two of you can return with us to the mountains; after that, you will be in Dragon lands."
"Bunaro-san! Go and scout ahead…we will camp tonight at the edge of the western crossroads," the gunso ordered with a loud cry. At the edge of the firelight, Koshin saw a large figure bow low to the voice, and thought he sensed something before the scout was suddenly gone.
"In two days you will reach the lands of the Dragon," Josai told them.
"I wonder," Koshin whispered, keeping Ujirou close to his side.
"…There is no doubt in my mind, Hitokan-sensei. They will soon pass through the lands of the Tonbo, and then into the safety of the Mirumoto lands."
"The Mirumoto lands are no guard against us any longer, Bukichi…their homes are broken and ruined, and Lord Hoshi is gone."
"These seven Tonbo bushi…other than them, the ronin is alone?"
"I will meet with you in the hour of twilight, just before the dawn. By that time, I expect that the Dragonfly bushi will be dealt with."
"It will be so."
The Dragonfly bushi and their newfound companions camped in the lee of a half-fallen watchtower, their yumi resting across each nervous knee. Cold winds from the mountains buffeted the small group of soldiers constantly, freezing them through their armor and into their clothes. Ujirou wished that he had more with him than a thin summer kimono, and wondered how his sensei remained so stoic against the mounting chill.
But Koshin was not concerned with the cold that wracked his body, so much as he was with the feeling that he had felt hours before. It was not a sense, but rather an absence, which hinted at old feelings that the ronin did not wish to accept for the truth.
The swordsman said nothing as his eyes watched the movements of the small fire, counting the minutes and hours until the Tonbo and Ujirou had fallen asleep. Then, as the last weary sentry's head slumped to touch tired shoulders, the bushi rose from his place by the fire, walking into the darkness with his shining gaze.
He walked unworried into the fallen darkness, moving constantly until he came to the twisted remnants of a burnt and ruined old tree. Thumbing his blade, Koshin looked up with a frown, "You cannot hide from me so easily, ninja. I know that you are there."
There was no answer from the hidden figure, only the sign of tainted, empty chi. "There is no sense in dragging this out, ninja…nothing will change the outcome of this fight…"
Silence fell from the top of the tree, and the smell of human blood was strong in the shifting air. Suddenly, Koshin felt a great sense of dread fall upon him and, springing off a nearby rock, leapt up and into the air. Seizing hold of a branch, the nimble samurai pulled himself to the treetop, his eyes widening at what he found.
The ruined, corrupted remnants of a man hung, pinned by his own wakizashi and katana to the highest section of the dead tree. His Shadow-tainted face bled and ran into a tragic ruin, tears pouring down from the hollow sinkholes that were once his eyes. Koshin touched the Dragonfly armor gingerly, drawing the poor man's attention to his form.
"A trap…" Koshin breathed to the Shadow-tainted bushi.
With a last, determined motion, the Tonbo managed to nod.
Death has Come…