Around me, everyone was rushing around the courtyard, loading supplies on the two packhorses, putting on extra layers of clothing.
When I reached them, Emi smiled, a small grin, and handed me a warmer coat, and then a sleeping mat. “That’s for tonight. Put it with ours on the white horse.”
I was so surprised at the tiny smile that it took me a moment to accept the bundle from her.
When I had stowed my bedroll with everyone else’s and pulled the padded jacket over the thin blue one, the younger Little Brother handed each of us a lumpy coat made of straw and a pair of straw boots. “We’re going to be walking through snow,” he said, placidly. “We can’t afford to have you freeze your feet.”
We each stepped into the boots, which gave me the unstable feeling of walking on a particularly scratchy pine branch. Then we pulled on the thick, long coats of woven straw. Emi and Aimaru started to snicker. I looked up; they looked like large, walking haystacks. Even Toumi gave a thin, embarrassed smile. That made me think of Usako, my little sister, and my heart twisted.
The entrance to the inn yard was once again unguarded. But in those boots…
Toumi batted at the straw hood and cloak that covered her body. “You look,” she muttered, “like a bunch of cows in their winter coats.”
“What does she think she looks like?” whispered Emi.
As the Little Brothers brought the beetle-black palanquin out of the stable where the horses had been kept, Lady Chiyome and Mieko stepped out of the inn. Kuniko, the maid with a face like a block of granite, followed the Little Brothers, holding what looked like a short sword attached to a pole as tall as she was. It was a weapon that I would later learn was called a glaive. I couldn’t think what Kuniko was doing with it, nor why it fit so comfortably in her grip. I assumed that it was for one of the carriers.
The old noblewoman was dressed just as she had been earlier that day, in her dark, layered winter kimono. I had expected the maids to be in their elegant silk robes, but they too were dressed warmly in subdued blue winter robes bearing the ten-petaled lotus mon. The Little Brothers set the palanquin immediately in front of Lady Chiyome, and once again she knelt into the box with that subtle movement that seemed to be no movement at all.
I waited for the two maids to get in with her. I hoped, I suppose, that their weight might slow down the speeding Little Brothers a bit.
Instead, however, the two young women came to us, Mieko with her unreal glide and Kuniko with her solid gait. Kuniko addressed us, gruff and direct, her glaive planted solidly beside her. “We will be walking for the next ten days, if the weather permits. Keep up. Do not whine.” From the palanquin, Lady Chiyome’s voice snapped, “Go!” The two Little Brothers picked up the box and, just as they had the night before, sped away, leading us out of the inn yard.
Kuniko strode forward behind them, leading the horses by their reins with one hand, swinging the glaive like a walking stick in the other, and we stumbled behind her. Mieko brought up the rear.
I have wondered, since, what would have happened if I simply hadn’t followed—if, say, I had run into the streets of Pineshore and hidden in the woods behind the town. It didn’t even occur to me in the moment to do anything other than fall into line and try as hard as I could to keep up.
As we headed north out of the inn along the main highway out of Pineshore, one of the horsemen circled behind us to serve as a rearguard. We walked quickly through the blizzard-barren streets of the town. A few shopkeepers and rag-pickers looked up, startled, as we passed.
A horse galloped past us, also heading north. It splashed mud—this time on our haystack coats—and disappeared ahead. I wondered if it were the same rider.
Watching the charger, I barely had the time to register the moment when I went further from home than I had ever been—past the shop of the rice merchant for whom Father had written a contract for his marriage with Jiro-san’s daughter Kana.
We walked steadily. Just beyond the edge of town, a bridge arced across the old, wide Weatherbank River. A clump of Lord Imagawa’s soldiers stood guard, peering away from us, toward the north. The only one who was actually facing the town barely looked at us and waved us through.
Our pack horses’ horses’ hooves rang hollowly against the wooden planks of the bridge. The river was much deeper and slower there than it was near our village, and I marched along near the side of the bridge, watching the dark green water swirl around the pilings, wishing it were summer and now the impulse to escape came, simply to leap the side of the bridge and swim back up to where the river passed near our house. However, the Little Brothers kept their quick, steady pace, taking us back onto solid ground and out into the open world along the Great Ocean Road, leaving my little world of pine, oak, and hemlock, creek and castle behind us.
The highway was wide, flat and very bare. Most of the time, we traveled just inland of the shore, where what trees there were had a twisted, wind-stunted shape. Even when we were traveling near to woods, the trees seemed to have been cleared back.
“Probably to keep travelers safe from bandits,” suggested Aimaru when I pointed it out to him during a rare stop.
A group of Imagawa cavalry clattered past us, also heading north. The steam from the horses’ nostrils flowed behind them like hair, like a single ghostly, white tail.
“Also,” mumbled Emi, “makes it easier for us to stay out of the way of troops.”
I nodded, but mostly I didn’t like it. My whole life had been spent surrounded by trees. Out there on the wide, flat road, I felt… naked.
As the sun began to dip toward the distant mountains, we discovered that sometimes even a highway isn’t always wide enough to allow us to stay out of the way of troops.
As we approached a crossroads, we saw that the main road was blocked by what looked like a thicket of armed men—more Imagawa soldiers. Not on guard, these, with many of them lying down. Many bandaged. Many bleeding.
A samurai in battered armor stood as we approached him, one hand out and signaling us to stop, the other on his sword.
Kuniko released the reins of the pack animals and held her glaive in both hands—the point still up, not threatening, but ready.
Lady Chiyome leaned out of her palanquin. “What is it? Why are we slowing?”
“Can’t go this way, lady,” said the samurai.
We all gathered behind Kuniko and the palanquin. Mieko stepped in front of Toumi, Emi and me.
“We need to head up this highway if we’re to get past the fighting,” the old lady grumbled.
The samurai gave a laugh that seemed totally without humor. “Not this way you won’t,” he said, pointing behind him with a jerk of his thumb. “Only way you’ll get past the fighting down this highway is through the gate to the next world.”
“There’s a village a ways up that road,” the samurai said, pointing to the smaller road that led inland. “Least, it was there a couple of days ago. You can spend the night there, then follow the road up the Little Nephew into Quick River Province. Don’t think there’s too much fighting up that way.”
“But we have to—!”
“Lady, try to go down this highway and I’ll kill you all myself. No civilians.” He glanced at Kuniko. “Or… whatever.”
“Bah!” Chiyome-sama slammed her window shut, which the Little Brothers took for a signal to head along the smaller road. As we began to march behind them, I could hear her growl from inside her box, “Ruffian!”
By the time we reached the village, it was nearly dark. Kuniko moved up to talk to the old noblewoman. I could hear the shrill sound of Chiyome-sama’s raised voice answering in anger, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying.
The armed maid looked back at us, her jaw tight. I couldn’t quite hear what she said to the lady, but I could make out the words danger and enemy.
On the other hand, when Chiyome-sama stuck her head out of the window, I could clearly hear her response, a disgusted snort. “Kuniko!” she hollered at her armed maid, who was still only an arm’s-length away, and pointed at the only building in the village that had a sign. “Go see if that’s an inn and get them to start the water boiling. I want a bath.” And with that, she snapped the screen shut.
Making a show of maintaining her dignity, Kuniko handed the reins of the packhorses to one of the Little Brothers and sauntered off toward the building.
Mieko was standing right behind me. I turned to her and whispered, “Why was Lady Chiyome so upset?”
Mieko tilted her head to one side and asked, very quietly, “What did you see on the road during our walk today?”
I frowned for a moment. “Horsemen, riding back and forth.”
“Um.” I frowned again. Toumi scowled at me from under her straw hood. “One this morning, riding to the castle? Another as we were crossing the bridge out of Pineshore… and… a bunch when we stopped?”
Mieko raised an eyebrow and turned to Emi. “How many, Emi-chan?”
“Nine,” answered Emi.
“Very good,” Mieko said. She looked back to me. “A small group of cavalry like that is called a squadron. Why do you think there has been so much—?”
Toumi interrupted, “’Cause there’s a damn battle going on, like that soldier said!”
Mieko’s posture didn’t change and her smile remained, but a hardness told us very clearly that she hadn’t appreciated Toumi’s interruption. After a moment she said, her eyes still on me, “Precisely. Back in Pineshore, there were rumors of a battle that might be taking place near here. Some of Lord Imagawa’s men had set out to attack an outpost of… of Lord Takeda’s. Chiyome-sama wanted to get past the danger before we stopped for the night.”
“She expected us to get further than this?” I heard Emi mutter. For once, even Toumi had nothing to say. Looking at their faces, I could see that they were as exhausted and as cold as I was.
I shivered, thinking about something quite separate from my cold-parched lips and sore legs: those soldiers at the crossroad, so many of them wounded. A battle? It suddenly occurred to me that I was safer traveling with this peculiar band than if I were off on my own.
When Kuniko came back, she informed Lady Chiyome through the screen that the house was indeed an inn, that they were pleased to be honored by the lady’s patronage, and that a bath was being prepared.
As we walked slowly down the street toward the inn, I saw a few faces peering out at us from behind curtains and doors. Several of the buildings’ roofs had clearly been scorched—there was a layer of fire-blackened thatch beneath bright, new straw. Two houses were nothing but black skeletons.
The sign of the inn, too, was blackened, though it was hard to tell whether by dirt and age or by flame and soot. It carried a barely visible image of a cat with a raised paw.
We entered slowly. As unimposing as the inn that we had stayed at in Pineshore had been, this place looked as though a good wind could blow it down. There was a wasp nest under the eves in the entryway, but even it looked ramshackle, as if the wasps had given it up for a lost cause.
“Welcome to the Mount Fuji Inn!” a dry voice warbled cheerfully. An old woman in a tatty kimono that had been elegant when her grandmother had worn it shuffled out of the front door and into the courtyard.
“Mount Fuji?” said Chiyome-sama as she stepped out of the palanquin. “We’re two days travel from the mountain,” she sniffed.
“Ah!” said the innkeeper, offering a stiff, deep bow, “but if the weather is clear tomorrow, you will be able to make out the holy mountain in the north.” She looked around, pinkened, and added, “It is a bit distant, it’s true, but you can make it out. On a clear day.”
She clapped her hands together. “Well, honored lady, we will be happy to serve you and your party. I will lead you to your room. My husband will see to the horses.” An old man, even more threadbare and tired-looking than his wife, stumbled forward, took the reins of the packhorses and led them into the inn’s lone stable. Kuniko followed him.
“Room?” Lady Chiyome asked, looking for once more amused than imperious.
“Honored lady,” said the innkeeper, “there have been very few visitors of late. It is the wrong season. And all the fighting… We have just one chamber available, on the ground floor.”
“Ground floor!” said Lady Chiyome. “That will do for my servants,” and she indicated us all with a negligent backhanded wave, “But I prefer something on the second floor.”
The old woman hissed in apology. “Eee, so sorry, honored lady, the upper floor to our inn is… has been…” She looked at Lady Chiyome uncertainly. “You have noticed that the town has been ravaged by fire. The Takeda nearly burned the town to the ground last month before they were driven back by Lord Imagawa’s men.”
Both of the carriers straightened up, and Mieko raised a thin eyebrow, asking a question of the lady without speaking it. Clearly they were worried about being so close to all of the fighting that was going on in this district; it certainly frightened me. Lady Chiyome held her hand up to silence their unvoiced concern. “We will stay,” she said, firmly. “The servants will sleep in the stable, or in the dining room.”
The old innkeeper bowed rustily. “Yes, honorable lady.”
Kuniko, who had just come back from stabling the horses, leaned in to whisper to Lady Chiyome. She smirked and said, “My maid informs me that the stables are barely habitable for the horses. My servants will stay in the dining room.”
“Yes, honorable lady.”