Akemashite omedeto gozai masu! (That is, Happy New Year!)
We’ve got an exciting new chapter of Risuko to start the year off with a bang. In 10 — Dark Letter, Risuko and Toumi stray from the trail and discover far more excitement than they’d bargained for.
We spent the night at a small Takeda fort guarding a rocky, barren place called, for some reason, Rice-Paddy Pass, which marked the border between Worth and Dark Letter Provinces. We were so high that there weren’t any trees. I felt naked. The air was dry and cold, we were exhausted, and the soldiers manning the garrison were edgy, as if waiting for an attack, though how — or why — an army would march so far and high I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps they were frightened of ogres.
The next morning, everybody—even Mieko—looked as grumpy as I felt.
Lady Chiyome shouted to rouse us. “Let’s go! I want to be back at the Full Moon by mid-day so that I can take a real bath and eat real food.”
As it turned out, Mochizuki was down in the valley below Rice-Paddy Pass. We began to descend, and for the first time in days I grasped the mane of Inazuna, Masugu’s stallion.
“Easy,” murmured Masugu—I think more for the horse’s sake than mine. To me, he said, “I thought you liked heights?”
“Do,” I answered through clenched teeth. It felt as if a stumble would be all that it would take to send the horse falling down into the valley, and us with it.
“Ah. Perhaps being on horseback makes it harder?”
I nodded, ashamed. Here, Masugu-san thought of me as a great samurai’s daughter; how could I behave so disgracefully?
“No problem, Murasaki-san,” he said, his kind voice cutting deeper than Toumi’s sneering might have done. “We’re going to be travelling pretty slowly. Do you think it would help if you were on foot?”
I nodded again, a bit less tremulously.
Masugu called out a halt, there at what felt like the roof of the world.
From the back of the line I heard Chiyome-sama bark, “What’s the hold up? I’m sick of being squashed in this box like a ten-month pregnancy!”
“Murasaki-san has expressed the desire to travel on foot for a while, and I thought a few of the other passengers might enjoy the lovely walk.”
As I slid back off of the horse onto the narrow mountain road just one other person took the opportunity to get back on solid ground with me: Toumi, who hated every moment of being on horseback.
She and I looked at each other, each unhappy with the other’s company, but with no option. From above us, Mieko asked, “Would you like me to join you, Toumi, Risuko?”
We both shook our heads.
She peered at us, then nodded. “Please stay together. And please don’t get separated from the rest of us.”
“Yes, Mieko-san,” Toumi and I said together.
As the horses began once more to walk, Toumi spat on the ground, then walked as quickly away from me as she could.
“Hey!” I called to her. “We’re supposed to stay together!”
As we began to descend down into the valley, Toumi and I played what, under better circumstances, would have been a game of something like Tag, in and around the horses. I was annoyed; it wasn’t as if I wanted to be near her either, but Mieko-san had said…
After a while, I chased Toumi just for the pleasure of annoying her.
The road was making a long series of switchbacks down the steep mountainside. It meant that we had to walk quite a distance just to get a little further down the hill. We could see the road beneath us, winding back and forth, and I will admit, as lovely as the view was, the walk was getting a bit tedious.
At least we were back among the trees.
Just as the sun began to come up over the mountain behind us, Toumi stopped, staring down.
“What are you looking at?”
The Little Brothers rumbled by us; we were now the last in line.
“Why go back and forth?” Toumi muttered.
She looked up at me as if she had forgotten I was there. “Going back and forth, it’s stupid.”
“The horses can’t go straight down the hill.”
“Well, I’m not a damned horse,” Toumi snarled. “I’m just going to go straight down and meet up with the rest of them at the next switchback down.” She started to step off the road.
“We’re not supposed to!”
She turned around, one foot in the mulchy soil of the slope, the other still on the road. She grinned at me. “Scared?”
Not waiting any more, Toumi walked down off the road and into the bank of thick juniper.
“Come back!” I looked down at her, then the retreating backs of our party. Well, I thought, Mieko said to stay together. And so I plunged down the hill after Toumi.
In retrospect, what I should have done was to go and alert Mieko, Masugu, or the Little Brothers. But I didn’t want to look like a coward or a telltale, and of course, the prospect of getting to climb won me over, even if it were just climbing down a rocky, scrub-clogged hillside.
I went barreling down after Toumi, sure that I would catch up with her before she reached the trees. But Toumi had longer legs than I, and she had been raised on the streets of the capital city, so that she could move very quickly.
The juniper there were much bigger than any I’d seen near home, easily three times a man’s height, but they were still juniper, thick and tangled. As soon as we entered the trees, I lost sight of Toumi. I had to listen for the sound of her feet slipping down the slope, of breaking branches, and of her occasional swearing. “Hold up!” I called. “Wait for me! We’ll get lost!”
“How can we get lost, Mouse? Just go downhill, or are you too frightened even to do that?”
That got me seeing red. Scared? I’d show her. I decided that from that point it was a race to the bottom—and I was going to win.
I could barely hear Toumi rustling through the trees over my own heavy breathing, but I knew that I was gaining on her, more comfortable in the grove’s close quarters. I angled toward what looked like a clearing, hoping to get past her without her knowing. In my mind, I imagined sitting on the road, cleaning my nails as she stumbled out onto the switchback.
Caught up in my own exhilaration and my rage, I burst out into the clearing without looking what I was running into—another mistake.
The clearing had been created by the fall of a large cedar. At one end, another cedar grew up from the old tree’s rotted trunk, smaller than its parent but much taller than the tangled juniper that surrounded it. In its lower branches stood a man in a brown cloak peering down toward where the road was. At the cedar’s base stood two other men, also in brown, with bows. Alerted by my noisy arrival, they were both staring at me. One of them raised his bow to shoot at me, and I tried to turn back up the hill, only to slip on the mulch of the fallen tree and tumble right at his feet.
At the same moment, a loud shout above me announced that Toumi had fallen into the clearing as well. With a thud and a grunt, she too fell to the ground, just where the other man could step over, grab her by the neck of her jacket, pull her up, and shove her against the cedar.
Trying to reach my feet, I stumbled against the man above me, sending his arrow flitting off harmlessly into the trees. Without a sound, the man clamped his hand over my mouth and pushed me against the rough bark of the cedar. I heard the hiss of a blade being drawn and screamed into the man’s hand.
“Don’t kill ‘em yet,” came a loud whisper from the man above. “Even if we can’t get anything off of this bunch, we can still sell these two.”
“You sure, boss?” The man’s face was masked with a strip of cloth, so that I could only see his eyes squinting at me. “This one’s awful scrawny.”
“Shut up,” hissed the man above. “They’re probably reaching the switchback soon. I need to get down to the look-out. Tie these two up. Gag ‘em. Me and Sanjiro are going down by the road to signal the others. Kawaii, you guard these runts and get the horses ready.” With that, he leapt from the branch he was standing on down into the juniper behind us.
I heard a smack and a grunt, and felt a weight slam against my shoulder.
The man raised his knife, and I screamed again into his hand, but he was lifting it to Toumi’s throat. She started to snarl at him, but stopped suddenly with a gulp as the blade bit into her flesh. “‘Tie ‘em up,’ the man says,” he muttered, followed by a string of words that I had never heard, not even after nearly seven days of traveling with soldiers. He leaned his body heavily against me, so that I couldn’t move—I could barely breathe—yanked the cloth mask from his face, balled it up and shoved it in my mouth. Pushing back his leather helmet, he pulled of the greasy cap beneath and did the same to Toumi. When she tried to fight, he growled, “I’d be just as happy to kill you both, girl. We ain’t here for no slaves. But if Tanaka says to keep you, I’ll keep you. Now shut up and stay still.”
Putting down his bow, but with his knife still at Toumi’s throat, he pulled a length of thin cord from beneath his cloak and tied it quickly around first my wrists and then Toumi’s. Squinting at us and then up at the tree, he spied the thick lower branches of the cedar. The cord went sailing over the branch and he caught it, then quickly pulled at it, so that our wrists were yanked in the air.
Toumi was standing on tiptoe; I, being shorter, was actually dangling by my wrists, which were burning as the cord cut into them.
“There,” grunted the squinty man with satisfaction. “That ought to hold you two.” Keeping the tension on our arms, he ran the cord over to one of the juniper trees and tied it off. Then he came back, picked up his bow, looked at us once more, and grimaced. “‘Look after the horses,’ right.” He gave a nasty laugh. “Damn Tanaka to seven damned hells. Well, you squirts aren’t going anywhere.” He started toward the uphill edge of the clearing, and then turned. “Don’t you get any ideas!” Almost without aiming he sent an arrow at us that missed my elbow by a hand’s breadth.
As soon as he was gone, we started to try to get loose. I was desperately trying to scramble up the bark behind me to take the pressure off, but the more I struggled the tighter the cord was. My hands and wrists were on fire; I could feel blood dribbling down my arms.
I looked at Toumi, who was crying, for which I didn’t blame her at all. Blinking at me, she tried to shove the gag out of her mouth. When that failed, she howled in frustration, but began lifting up with her chin and looking upward, as if she were trying to tell me to climb.
Climb? Climb what? I looked up; the branch wasn’t that far overhead, but there was no way to climb to it—
Toumi kicked me, then lifted her chin again, first up, and then to the side. When I didn’t respond, she growled and did it again. CLIMB ME!
Ah! I threw my legs around her waist as if she were herself a small pine and shimmied up. Immediately, the pressure on my wrists lessened, and I almost passed out from the relief, sliding back down so that cords began to bite back into my flesh.
Toumi growled, waking me to my purpose again, and, using my legs and—once I’d worked my way up just a bit—grabbing on to the cord itself, I climbed until the cord looped around my wrists fell away and I dropped to the ground.
The relief was so intense that for a second I couldn’t stand, but Toumi started kicking dirt on me. I yanked the gag from my mouth. “I’ll untie it from the other end. I can’t cut it from—”
She shook her head emphatically, screaming through the rag stuffed in her mouth, then threw her legs up over my shoulders. Realizing what she was trying to do, I did my best to lift her until at last she was able to work her wrists free—releasing Toumi’s full weight onto me. I collapsed to the ground beneath her.
We rolled apart, gasping for breath and shaking the blood and feeling back into our hands.
A shadow blocked the sun shining on my sweat-slick face, and I gasped, sure that the bandit had come back to kill us in spite of the ringleader Tanaka’s orders.
“Well done, Risuko-chan, Toumi-chan,” said a warm, hushed voice.
Mieko-san stood above us, her dagger in her hand, a twig in her hair the only other sign that the situation was at all unusual.
“But… but…!” spluttered Toumi. “I saw you riding away with the others!”
“Did you?” Mieko smiled mildly. “Come, girls. We must hurry.”
“The man,” I gasped, standing and brushing myself off. “The one who tied us up—”
“—is not likely to bother us.”
“Really?” asked Toumi, eyes fierce, staring at Mieko’s knife.
“I cut loose the horses,” said Mieko, pursing her lips. “When I last saw him, he was trying to chase them down, and that should take some time.”
“Oh,” muttered Toumi.
“But we need to warn the others. They’ll have just started back this way from the switchback. If we can warn them…” Mieko frowned. “But I don’t want to risk exposing you to these bandits, or…” Her eyes swept around the clearing, ending on the cedar to which we’d been tied. Her eyes narrowed and she walked toward the tree, plucking the arrow that had nearly pierced my arm from the bark. She turned. “Risuko,” she said, her voice suddenly low, “do you think it would be quicker for you to scurry through this bramble, or to climb over the top?”
I blinked. “Um. Through the canopy?”
She nodded and pointed to the right of the tree. “Go. Now. That way. Warn Masugu and the rest that there’s an ambush.”
Not waiting for another word, I sprinted to the edge of the clearing and clambered to the matted top of the juniper. Glancing back, I saw Mieko hauling Toumi into hiding in the brush.
The juniper branches were thick and springy. As I burst up through the top layer, I could hear the muted sound of our company. They had just turned at the switchback; squinting, I could just make out Masugu’s tall stallion, where I should have been riding.
I set out at a sprint, running along one bouncy juniper limb, crossing to the next where they crossed. The branches were so thickly overlapping that, while the going was slower than it would have been on open ground, I was moving much faster than I would have through the underbrush below, and with a much clearer sense of where I was going. I zigged and zagged along the treetops for a few heartbeats…
When I heard a clatter behind me.
Glancing back I saw no one. I ran along a few more steps.
Another clatter. I turned around again. Nothing.
Then, from out of the trees downhill on the opposite side of the road, I saw a grey speck lancing toward me. Not pausing to think, I ducked.
The arrow hissed over my head like an angry snake.
I dropped down into the juniper.
I heard another arrow thud into a branch just ahead of me.
Crouching just below the top layer of branches, I tried to think. I needed to warn Masugu-san and the rest of the party. But I was too far away to shout, and if I tried to climb above the canopy again, the archers would be looking for me. I could try to make my way back on the ground, but the going would be slow, and—not going straight downhill, as I had before getting caught earlier—I would have a hard time keeping my sense of direction.
I could just hear the clatter of our party’s hooves on the stony road, and knew that they would be in the bandits’ range soon. Still, I had to be closer to Masugu and the rest than the bandits were. If only I could scout out a direct—
I gasped, stunned that it had taken me so long to remember. Placing my hands in front of my mouth—holding on to the branch with my knees, I let out three owl hoots—not caring what kind of owl this time, just making sure that they were as loud as I could make them.
I listened. The hoof beats continued.
Hoo! Hoo! Hooooo!
I thought I heard Masugu’s voice, but it sounded as if the horses were still clopping toward the bandits’ trap.
I breathed deep, squeezed hard with my knees, and hooted louder than any owl could have.
I heard the lieutenant’s voice again, shouting this time. “Attack! We’re under attack! Form up!”
Then there was yelling and shouting, and the clash of swords, and horses and men screaming, just as there had been at the Mt. Fuji Inn.
Only this time, I had absolutely no intention of sticking my head out where it might get shot.