Shimatsuno Village

Tosa Domain, Japan

August, 1634

 

Deep in the mountains of Tosa in southern Japan, a tiny farming village lay at the bottom of a valley on the banks of the Yoshino River. The hills were filled with terraces of rice paddies that flashed gold in the sun with the ripe seeds of the plants. Choruses of stark farmer’s songs filled the air as the townspeople labored to harvest the life-sustaining crop.

One of the farmers stood out from the rest with the sheathed short sword stubbornly thrust through his belt even as he hunched over in the ankle-deep paddy with a small scythe in one hand. Yamazaki Genzaburo groaned as he straightened out, tossing the latest plant he had cut into a pile and stretching his back. The late morning sun felt hot on his face, and his simple clothing clung to his body from the heavy exertion of the harvest.

Just as he bent back down to reach for the next rice plant, he felt a wet thud against the back of his head. He reached back quickly and felt a gooey mass of mud mixing into his hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. Howling laughter filled his ears, and he turned to see the sight of his attacker. He shouldn’t have been surprised, a quartet of young men stood on the raised embankment that surrounded and divided the paddies.

“Is that a samurai or a farmer? I can’t tell with all that mud on him,” shouted one of the young men, in his late teens like Genzaburo. They each were dressed nicer than the other farmers in the paddies, and each carried a short sword in his belt. One of them, a particularly fatter one, stepped forward and waggled his sword hilt with his hand. “What’s the matter, O-Samurai-sama? Are you going to strike us down?”

Genzaburo’s cheeks burned, and his jaw clenched until his teeth hurt. He and his family were goshi, a designation for old retainers of the previous daimyo family when the shogun sent an outsider, Lord Yamauchi, to take over the domain almost twenty years before after executing his predecessor. To placate the local samurai, they were allowed to keep their status, but they lived as little more than farmers on tiny fields far from the city like that paddy. They were far below the status of the joshi, the upper-class city samurai who filled the capital of Kochi and the surrounding lands closer to the castle town.

The particularly large young man was Nijo Hideteru, the son of shoya Nijo Hidesane, the village headman. Though nominally only a farmer and below Genzaburo and his family, the shoya was placed in charge by the daimyo himself and in control of the village. Hideteru carried a sword and attended the same samurai schools in the capital of Kochi as Genzaburo. All his life, he had been a thorn in the young man’s side, mercilessly bullying him since they were children. Genzaburo was a prime target, a higher social class than the shoya’s son and his compatriots, but at the same time powerless and desperately poor.

A loud and stern command came out of nowhere. “Hideteru, you leave him alone this instant. Your mother must have work for you to do!” Genzaburo didn’t have to look to tell who had said that; he knew that voice and tone better than anyone. Hideteru wilted under her glare and grumbled before turning away and trundling off with his patsies.

Aneue,” he said as his older sister, Ao, approached towards the edge of the paddy. She was several years older than him, one of the most beautiful girls in the village his friends had said, and newly married to a doting husband. They still lived at home, as Genzaburo’s father was chronically ill and weak, and their mother was long since dead. His sister never stopped smiling in spite of that, and her strength of personality kept the family afloat. She was dressed in her typical rough-spun kimono, and she carried a small bundled cloth in her hands.

She gave him a sad smile as she stood there on the embankment. “I brought you lunch, let’s get you cleaned up, hmm?” His stomach chose that unfortunate moment to rumble quite loudly and any protest he might have had died before he could say it. He sighed and nodded, “Thank you. I am starving.”

Genzaburo stepped out of the paddy and sat down on the embankment with his sister. She opened the bundle, and he took the rice ball it contained and silently ate it as she dabbed at the back of his head with the cloth. “You really shouldn’t let him bully you like that,” she lectured him as she always did, “he’ll never stop until you do.”

“It’s not worth the hassle for you and father,” Genzaburo mumbled around a mouthful of rice. “Things are bad enough with our father as it is.” With Genzaburo’s father ill, the family’s debts had risen, and they were barely self-sufficient with their land and workforce. The family had been forced to take a large loan from the Nijo two years before, shortly before Genzaburo’s coming of age ceremony.

Ao snickered, “I miss the days I could give him a good whack on the head when he misbehaved.” As she said that, she mimed doing it and smacked her brother on the back of his head. “Oh, sorry! Sorry!” she said as he laughed and tried not to choke on his half-eaten lunch. She had always been full of energy, which was a good quality for a goshi daughter, as his father had said. Far from society and the city, she was destined to marry a farmer until she had been lucky enough to run into one of the daimyo‘s ashigaru soldiers stationed in the mountains to cut timber for export. Takahiro had been instantly smitten with the young woman and doggedly courted her until she agreed to marry him. He had been adopted into the family as well and was a dependable help for them.

The other farmers were returning to the paddies, so Genzaburo and his sister rose back to their feet. She carefully wrapped the muddy side of the cloth and slid it into her kimono. “Don’t dawdle after you finish here. There will be a big supper waiting for you.”

One thing Genzaburo loathed was when she mothered him, as she had for many years now, but he grinned a bit as he replied, “Hai, hai . . .” which made her roll her eyes in frustration and slap at the air in front of him. “Just say it once!” He was still grinning as he waded back into the paddy and pulled out his scythe, all memories of the earlier incident forgotten.

****

“Prepare yourself!”

Ao lunged forward as she thrust her sword forward straight towards Genzaburo’s chest. She moved fast, and he only had the briefest moment to drop his shoulder back, letting her thrust go wide by less than a handsbreadth as he twisted. He smacked her blade to the side with his and spun around to face her again.

She stood glaring at him with her sword held over her head by both hands. Genzaburo dropped his sword tip until it faced backwards on his right side. Ao gave a loud kiai cry and brought her sword down in a powerful slashing motion. Genzaburo swung upwards in an arc and his arms and shoulders ached from the impact as they came together.

Both siblings pushed with their swords, Ao from above and Genzaburo from below, locked together with neither willing to yield. Ao grinned harshly at him, “Even as a woman, I am just as much a samurai as you are, Genzaburo. You cannot defeat me!”

Ao stamped a foot forward and shoved him back before launching into an offensive of blows. Genzaburo parried with the flat of his blade, deflecting them to either side, but he couldn’t find an opening in his sister’s attack. Step after step he yielded to her, falling back as she pressed forward.

If he could make her over-extend her attack, then he might be able to land a blow. Just as he moved into position, he felt his back foot slip, and he fell backwards. Ao loomed over him with her sword held high, bringing it down sharply in a killing blow that made his belly burn with pain.

The tip of his sister’s wooden sword hovered above Genzaburo’s face and she had a smug grin. “I have beaten you, Genzaburo. I told you I would.”

“Ever since I returned from my training in the city, you make me practice with you nearly every day. I’ve taught you everything that my instructors taught me!” His pride was as wounded as his belly. “What was that for?” he asked her as she helped him onto his feet.

She gestured with her sword at the ground on which he had just lain and the mess of bamboo and plants. “You fell into my garden. You’re lucky I didn’t take your head!”

Genzaburo and his sister sparred like this regularly, both physically and verbally. In truth, he didn’t mind it, though sometimes her overzealous nature was especially tiring after a long day in the fields like today. Days when she won were especially tiring.

“What would your husband say, hearing you talk like that?”

“He would say he’s not foolish enough to face her in battle and glad he isn’t on her bad side!” Ao’s husband, Takahiro, spoke up from his seat on the veranda. He relaxed, watching them while the family dog gave a lazy yawn as he scratched it on the head.

“Is that something one of the daimyo‘s ashigaru should be saying?” Genzaburo asked him.

Takahiro lifted his hand from the dog’s head and waved a dismissive gesture. “All I’ve ever done is chop timber for the daimyo to sell in Osaka. I’ve never fired my teppo in anger. We are barely soldiers even though they still call us elite and the center of Tosa’s army! I guess some of the veterans still remember fighting.”

Ao held her sword behind her neck, holding both ends in a relaxed posture. “Maybe we should change places. I will whip them into shape until they could take on the entire Tokugawa army itself and get revenge for our lord!”

“That might be nice, I could live the life of leisure while you work,” Takahiro responded with a laugh. His wife had a grin on her face as she retorted. “You’re not getting out of housework that easily! Not to mention you cooking without burning the house down!”

While the couple bantered back and forth, Genzaburo stewed in silence. He was being ignored, talked over, and besides, his stomach still hurt from the blow. He blurted out suddenly, “A woman like you on the battlefield? Don’t be ridiculous. What would father think? Who would take care of him?”

The moment those words passed his lips, Genzaburo regretted them. The look on his sister’s face fell in an instant from joviality to a pained look. The courtyard was completely silent as she slipped the sword off her shoulders and held it by the blade to him with a stony expression. “You’re right, as always,” she said, shoving the sword into his hand with enough force that he had to take a step back.

Ao turned away. “I should be cooking, not doing something ridiculous like playing with swords.” She stated that a little too calmly before stepping up into the house and closing the paper and wood door behind her.

Genzaburo stood there silently after she left, his hands squeezing tight on both swords he held. He felt a heavy arm drape over his shoulders, and he looked up to see the face of his brother-in-law staring down at him. Takahiro had a smile on his face, and Genzaburo had always known him to be jovial, but this felt different. “Oi, oi, Genzaburo. I know you’re young, but that was a little too insensitive. She is mad but let her cool off for a little while. She’ll forgive you if you apologize to her properly.”

****

Takahiro was right and Genzaburo took his evening meal outside that night, but he prostrated himself on all fours with his forehead on the ground the next morning and apologized for his heartless remark to his sister. Peace returned to the Yamazaki household.

A few days later, the mid-afternoon sun beat mercilessly on Genzaburo and the farmers as they worked. Like many of them, Genzaburo had dispensed with his kimono, which lay with his swords in a pile on the embankment, leaving him in little more than a loincloth and knotted headband as he did his work. It had been a peaceful afternoon, and his thoughts had drifted while the monotony of the task set in.

An incessant clanging of the town bell pulled him out of his thoughts, and his head whipped up in alarm. Moments later, he could hear it—the sound of approaching hoofbeats. The farmers around him were murmuring in fright, and he shushed them so he could listen better.

Horsemen, definitely, and riding fast. That wasn’t usual here, not this deep in the mountains. Which meant only one thing . . .

He climbed up on the embankment, scooping up his swords on the way, and ran forward until he could see the road approaching the village. A dozen men on horseback were riding swiftly along it, followed by at least that many running briskly on foot after them. All of them were armed, and he knew exactly what they were. Bandits.

He had never fought in a real battle, and the last bandit attack on the village was when he was still too young to fight, so he could feel his stomach heaving and his throat going dry. He was only a goshi, but he was still a samurai, and his homeland expected him to fight. All he had were his swords though, not nearly enough to do anything against that many armed fighters.

Genzaburo turned back towards his house, only a short sprint away but well enough away from the bandits, who were concentrating on the more lucrative pickings of the shoya‘s house and the rice granary. “Seek shelter!” he yelled at the farmers as he ran back, with his hand on his swords.

He threw the door to his home open and ran in without stripping off his woven sandals, trailing dust and mud across the tatami floor. His father’s room was dark and stuffy, and he heard him coughing as he tried to sit up in his futon. “What is happening, son?”

“Bandits are attacking the village, father. I came to get the armor,” Genzaburo replied as he stepped quickly to the armor set in an alcove in the wall. “Some are on horse, some on foot.”

“They are more than you can handle yourself, Genzaburo. Try and find the arquebusiers if you can, otherwise, try and save as many people as you can. You cannot fight all of these men yourself.” His father’s weak voice trailed off in another fit of coughing, and he fell back down onto his futon.

Genzaburo grimaced at the weakness of his father, whom he remembered as a powerful, driven, proud man as he was before. “I will not fail you or our village, father. You have my word.” He turned back to the armor and began to dress quickly. It was simple, mass-produced armor made from iron bands. Crude-looking, but effective, even if it was little more than just the torso piece over a pair of lightly armored sleeves. He had no time to gather the rest. A band of fabric with a small iron plate over his forehead completed what he had to wear, and he picked up a spear from the rack on the wall.

Feeling the familiar weight in his hand, Genzaburo turned back towards his father and dropped to one knee before bowing his head. “I will make you proud, Father.” It was as much for him as it was for his father. He was frightened, and it was the years of training that were propelling him forward. His legs felt like he was wading through mud as he left his father’s room and walked back through the house. He found his sister by the entrance. She had her glaive in hand, and he could see the hilt of her dagger thrust through her belt next to her wooden sword.

“Stay here and protect father and our home,” he instructed her. He knew the argumentative expression on her face all too well. “You need me out there!” she protested.

He shook his head. “You wanted to be a samurai like me, didn’t you? Beyond everything else they taught us, they taught us that our duty was the most important thing. You have a duty as a samurai daughter to defend our home and our father. No one else can do it!”

Ao looked down at the glaive clutched in her hands. She let out a long sigh before squeezing her hands and looking up at him with a firm expression. “I understand…I will do my duty. I will make anyone who comes into our home regret it.”

“If something happens, flee across the river. They are on horseback and won’t cross it,” he said before suddenly grinning. “It is our first battle. Let’s make our father proud.”

Ao closed the gate behind him as he ran down the path towards the village. He could hear the distant screaming and shouting as he approached. One building was already in flames, and several of the horsemen carried lit torches in their hands. Genzaburo’s heart was racing from the exertion and fear as he tried to keep from panicking.

A sudden whinny of a horse caught his attention, and he turned reflexively. His eyes widened as he found himself staring at a horseman charging at him, armored and carrying an old-style large sword. He was no ordinary ronin, not dressed the way he was like a proper retainer.

Genzaburo’s hands gripped the shaft of his spear tightly until his knuckles turned white. His attention was focused in the glare of the approaching bandit, the panting breaths of his small, agile steed, and the wicked gleaming curved blade held up and ready to hack down on him and end another goshi‘s life.

He settled himself into the position he was taught, down on one knee, spear held at an angle braced against the ground, ready to meet the horseman. The sword came down, slower than he had expected it. It was almost as if it was in slow-motion. He ducked his head, and he could feel it sweeping across the space he had just occupied. Hunched over like that, he tilted the spear higher and felt it jerk backward in his hands suddenly as it impacted.

He skidded in the dirt, but somehow, he managed to stay upright as the bandit was dismounted by him. Genzaburo’s spear was thrust into his chest where the sheer momentum of the impact had driven the head of the spear through it. The bandit lay on the ground in front of Genzaburo, stunned but not dead. When he attempted to pull the spear out, it remained stuck fast in the armor as the man began to push up from the ground. Seeing no other choice, he drew his short sword and thrust it down with both hands through the struggling bandit’s throat.

The man slowly stopped moving and Genzaburo staggered back until he was sitting on the ground a few paces away from the body. He had never killed before, and he had never considered that he might be forced to in this era of peace, even in his childish boyhood dreams. It was suddenly all too real, and he felt the urge to vomit the lunch his sister had made as he stared at the bright red blood sticking to the blade of his sword.

While he struggled to keep his food down, the sound of several shouting voices coming from behind him shook him out of the moment. He looked back over his shoulder, only to see several bandits with their own spears running towards him down the road. Against those odds, he didn’t stand a chance, and one word filled his mind: run.

The horse was still nearby. After its rider had been taken off, it had come to a stop and ambled back towards the pair. It was just barely close enough, or at least he hoped it was.

Genzaburo sheathed his short sword and took off at a run for the horse. He was already winded, and all he could hear now was the pounding of blood and his panting filling his ears. He reached out desperately as he neared the horse, conscious of the rapidly-approaching party, and felt his heart leap in his chest as his fingers closed around the reins. Fortunately, as a goshi, he was permitted the use of a horse, and he felt comfortable enough in a saddle. He stuck his bare foot in a stirrup and hiked himself up onto the small, agile mountain pony.

The bandits were nearly on him, and he brushed aside one of the spear points with a chainmail-protected arm while he wheeled the horse about and jabbed his heels into its sides. The horse shot forward in a quick gallop, and he chanced a look over his shoulder to watch the bandits recede behind him while he shouted with joy and sudden exultation.

The ashigaru unit assigned to the village to harvest mountain timber was stationed in a small barracks building on the edge of the forest away from the paddies. If he could reach there in time, and if there were any of the trained gunmen there, then perhaps they could fight back. He wasn’t sure that any were there, as the troops weren’t due back from the wood-cutting duties yet, but he had to hope.

The road was filled with fleeing farmers as he rode the horse towards the barracks. He was forced to slow down the horse to avoid trampling any of them. Eventually, the crowd thinned out, but as it did, he spotted a lone armored figure running along the road in front of him. It was one of the ashigaru Genzaboro was looking for. Better yet, the gold trim of his armor indicated it was a junior officer of the local unit, Gamou Akamichi. He was, unfortunately, running in the wrong direction.

Genzaboro gave his mount a kick with his heels, and it sped up to run down the fleeing gunner. He moved in front and reined the horse to a stop. The man’s face, visible beyond the brim of his cone-shaped helmet, looked terrified and he held a tight grip on his musket. He looked up at Genzaboro, “Yamazaki-sama, please, let me past. The battle is lost. The village is lost.”

Few things the man could have said would have angered Genzaburo more than what he did. The young samurai slipped down to his feet and advanced on the foot soldier. His voice seethed with barely-contained rage. “How dare you? You would abandon these homes? Your men? My family? Turn around and protect those who cannot protect themselves.” He put his hand on the ashigaru‘s shoulder and tried to turn him around, but the other man held fast.

“No,” Gamou replied, “I’m not going back!” His own voice cracked with terror, and his eyes were staring wide-eyed at the samurai. He brought up the musket suddenly; the barrel pointed straight at Genzaburo’s chest. “There’s nothing you can do to make me go.”

Genzaburo had never had a musket pointed at him before like this, and he froze with fear as the other man cocked back the smoldering slow-match. He took an involuntary step back from the other man until he was a few shaku away. The muzzle wavered as the man’s hands shook, and the motion kept Genzaburo’s eyes fixed on it.

He could hear sporadic gunfire from the village, but he was not sure whether that was survivors of Gamou’s men or the villagers with their hunting muskets. “Gamou . . .” he softly spoke, he did not want that musket to fire at him that close, “What happened to your men?”

The ashigaru‘s hands shook badly enough that the muzzle of the musket bobbed up and down in front of him. “I . . . we had a team bringing a log down to the river. We were on our way back and passing near the barracks when the attack began.” He slowly lowered the musket a small amount. “We had enough time to don our armor and take up our weapons, but they outnumbered us. We were surrounded. Surely there can’t be any survivors now.”

Genzaburo’s hands clenched into tight fists as he struggled with an urge to strike the ashigaru. He bit back a retort, instead saying, “The battle is not over. The village is not lost. I don’t think your men are dead. Will you come with me to find them?”

“Do you . . . really think so?” Gamou asked in a whimpering voice. He was twice Genzaburo’s age, but all the samurai could do was feel pity for the man. He nodded in reply to him. “Yes, I do. Now come. Come!” One hand gripped the horse’s reins, and he gestured Gamou onwards with the other.

Gamou’s fingers gripped the musket tightly, and his body quivered like it was chilled, but he followed along with Genzaburo as they walked swiftly back in the direction of the village. “I’m sorry I ran,” he softly spoke. “I panicked, I’ve never been in a battle before.”

“Neither have I,” Genzaburo replied to him as he led the horse alongside him. “I killed one of the bandits. He was . . . the first person I ever killed. I keep remembering that there are people in this village I swore to protect. I can’t let them down.” The memory flashed before his eyes again, and he lightly shook his head to push it away.

“I suppose you will have to report this after the battle,” the ashigaru said with a sigh. Genzaburo shook his head, “Help me defend our home, and I will never breathe a word of it. You have my word.” Gamou looked at him then with sudden happiness in his eyes. He stopped, causing Genzaburo to stop and turn towards him as he dropped to the ground in front of him with his forehead practically on the ground and his musket laying next to him. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Gamou’s head lifted slightly, and then he suddenly leaped forward, shoving Genzaburo hard and causing him to fall back down the embankment and into the rice paddy. Genzaburo sputtered and lifted his head out of the water. What he saw as he wiped his eyes dry surprised him. On either end of the road they were on stood a bandit, two of those who had chased him earlier. Each was armed with a spear, and they had the ashigaru cornered.

Gamou’s musket lay on the ground still, and the ashigaru pulled out his sword instead. He turned back and forth between them as they stepped closer and closer. Genzaburo could see the fear in his face, and he was paralyzed, half-hidden amongst the plants in the paddy as he watched. Gamou raised his sword above his head and screamed a battle cry at both of them, but it was too late. The bandits thrust forward and skewered him from both sides with their spears. His body went limp and sagged to the ground as they withdrew their spears.

The bandits stepped closer, one of them giving a soft kick to Gamou’s body to make sure he was dead. Genzaburo could hear the two of them speaking. “See if he has anything good on him. Look at all that gold, he must be an officer,” said one, while the other one peered down the embankment near where Genzaburo lay. “Wasn’t there another one?”

His companion knelt by Gamou’s body and worked to strip him of his armor. “Who cares? Do you see him? He must have drowned.” He looked up and gestured further along the road, “Don’t just stand there, go and bring back that horse! I think it’s one of ours.”

The other bandit grumbled at his partner and jogged down the embankment to retrieve the horse and Genzaburo’s body burned with rage as he watched Gamou’s corpse being looted by the bandit who had so casually slain him. With the other that far away now, there was a chance, a slim chance, that he could at least avenge him.

Genzaburo half-crawled, half-stumbled to the edge of the embankment. He stretched up until he could just barely see the kneeling bandit only a short length away. His hand fumbled with the hilt of his sword in the heat of the moment as he propelled himself over the edge with a sudden yell and hurled his body against that of the bandit.

The two of them were on the ground, with Genzaburo on top. He glared down at the callous face of the bandit, cringing from the unfeeling coldness in the man’s eyes. They were the eyes of a killer.

The bandit wasted no time before beginning to fight back, and his fingers tore at Genzaburo as he attempted to dislodge him. He was older and stronger than Genzaburo, and he flipped the younger samurai onto his back with ease. His hand flicked downward, and Genzaburo’s eyes followed them, widening as he saw the bandit drawing a sharply-pointed dagger from a scabbard at his waist.

The man lifted his arm to drive it into Genzaburo. He managed to pull his left hand free and brought it up just in time to grasp at the man’s wrist. The tip of the dagger hovered just above his face, and he could smell the man’s breath and feel the sweat from his face dripping down on him. He was weakening, and the dagger got closer to his face with every passing moment.

Genzaburo’s other hand was trapped at his side with the man’s hand pinning his shoulder down. His swords were out of reach, stuck under the bandit’s armored belly. His right hand groped blindly until he felt something hard under his fingertips.

He recognized the texture immediately. It was a sword hilt, that of Gamou’s discarded short sword lying in the mud next to him. Feeling his strength fading and knowing that any moment now the bandit would kill him, Genzaburo’s fingers wrapped around the hilt and he thrust it upward deep under the bandit’s left arm.

The bandit’s face contorted, and he howled in pain as he rolled off of Genzaburo and tried to push himself to his feet. Genzaburo, meanwhile, rose to one knee, the other foot planted in front of him. The bandit pulled the short sword out of his shoulder and gripped it with his other, still-functioning hand.

The spring-loaded arm had cracked when the musket hit the ground. The still-smoldering coil of slow match lay on the ground nearby.

The bandit was practically on top of Genzaburo again already, ready to skewer him with the sword as Genzaburo lifted the muzzle of the matchlock. With his other hand, he flicked open the pan and grasped the match itself, thrusting it down into the primer in desperation.

A loud bang sounded from the weapon as a musket ball tore through the bandit’s chest. His face and body went slack, and he fell on top of Genzaburo once more. The samurai pushed him off, his cuirass covered in the other man’s blood. With the weight of the bandit off of him, Genzaburo lay there for a moment to collect himself, panting and staring up at the sky.

The cry of the bandit’s companion roused him once more. He sat up and saw the other man in the distance charging down the road towards him with his spear held in front of him. Genzaburo looked around him, still gripping the barrel of the musket in one hand. He did not want to take on a spear with his much shorter swords, and that left him with one other option.

A lacquered box was slung on Gamou’s hip, and Genzaburo reached down to open it. Inside were a number of wooden tubes with stoppers plugged in one end of each. These tubes were designed for rapid reloading, and he would have to depend on that if he wanted to get a shot off before the onrushing spearman ran him through.

Still holding the musket by the end of the barrel, he set it against his knee and used that hand to open the stopper on the tube. He carefully put it against the muzzle and poured the full load of powder down into it. The bandit was approaching ever closer, and Genzaburo forced himself to focus on the task at hand as he withdrew the ramrod and thrust it down through a hole in the middle of the tube, shoving the ball and waddings into the gun in one motion.

Just moments left now, as he tossed the tube and ramrod aside and picked up a powder horn for the primer. He gave it a dash and rose up to his feet with the matchlock leveled against his shoulder, his right hand gripping the match itself instead of the trigger. The bandit was practically at him now as he thrust the match into the pan again. At this range, there was no way to miss, and the bandit fell forward with blood gushing from what used to be his throat.

The inertia brought the spear forward until it impacted with Genzaburo’s right shoulder. It ruptured the mail and cloth, and he felt the burning rush of pain as it glanced upwards and away, tearing a deep gash in the flesh, but little real damage.

He clutched his hand to his bloody shoulder after he dropped the smoking musket to the ground. He was alone again, surrounded by those bodies. Even the horse had wandered off again during the commotion. The sounds of gunfire and yelling from the village still echoed through the air, the battle was not finished yet.

Gamou’s corpse lay at his feet, and he knelt down beside it. “Maybe I should have let you keep running,” he said through tears in his eyes. Not just the rush of battle was making him emotional, he was the first non-enemy killed in front of him and, more importantly, the man had saved his life with one of his last acts. They could have fought the bandits together, but, irrationally or not, Gamou sacrificed himself to make sure Genzaburo would live.

Gamou had a large conch shell hanging from his shoulder on a rope strap. With his shoulder injury, the damaged musket was as useless as the bandit’s spear, so Genzaburo laid it aside and carefully extracted the shell, hanging it over his unwounded shoulder. “I’m sorry…and thank you,” he spoke one last time before he turned and took off for the village at a brisk pace.

There was no way he could do this, was there? Insecurity gnawed at the back of his mind as he ran towards the sounds of fighting. “Just keep running,” he whispered to himself as his sandaled feet pounding on the dirt of the path. The ashigaru barracks was on a higher terrace than the central part of the village, and he approached it from that higher vantage point. There was a cart overturned on its side, and he squatted down behind it and slowly lifted over the edge so he could get a view.

“Oh no . . .” he murmured softly as he saw the bandits looting the village. Half a dozen of the houses were on fire, including the shoya’s and the rice granary. Most of the villagers he could see were gathered near an outcropping of rock, guarded by several of the ashigaru gunners who fired their muskets enough to keep the bandits at bay but not enough to push back against them. It was a stalemate with the bandits unable to dislodge the gunners, and the gunners unable to drive off the bandits who were continuing to pillage and burn the village.

“There has to be something I can do,” Genzaburo whispered while his fingers gripped the wooden cart so tightly that they ached. “But I don’t have any . . .” His voice trailed off, and he looked down at the conch shell hanging at his hip. It was a military signal device called a jinkai, and it gave him a sudden and perhaps utterly insane idea.

Wincing from the pain in his throbbing shoulder, Genzaburo slipped the jinkai‘s strap off and drew his shorter wakizashi sword with his uninjured left hand. The image of his family flashed in his mind and gave him pause for a moment, but he brushed them to one side. His knees felt weak, and his courage was nearly at an end, but he brought the shell to his lips and blew. He blew it as hard as he could until his face was red, his blood pounded in his ears, and it felt like he was going to faint.

Then he charged.

****

 

Several Days Later

 

Ah mou . . . if you keep overdoing it, you’re just going to make this wound worse!” Ao loudly complained as she rebandaged the wound on Genzaburo’s shoulder. He was sitting stripped to his waist and cross-legged on the veranda lining the interior courtyard of their farmhouse. A warm and lazy late-summer breeze wafted through the courtyard, and the sound of the seasonal cicadas was almost deafening.

A large horsefly buzzed by his face, and he reflexively brushed it away from his cheek with his hand. He instantly regretted it as a sharp pain lanced through his shoulder. His sister cried out behind him, “Stop that! I wasn’t done yet! Father!” He had returned to their home after the battle to find the bodies of two bandits lying dead at the front gate from her hand and several farmers taking refuge in their courtyard defended by Ao.

Genzaburo and Ao’s father sat in the shade on the veranda, a blanket draped over his shoulders, and his cane clutched in his gnarled hands. “Let him be, Ao. I wasn’t any better at his age. Tosa men like him and me are stubborn!” He gave a raspy, weak laugh that quickly devolved into a wheezing cough.

Takahiro looked up from the ax he was sharpening with a feigned hurt look. “What about me, father?” he asked his father-in-law. The old man waved a dismissive hand, “Oh, you’re from the plains, but we’ll cure that!” He gave a raspy, weak laugh that quickly devolved into a wheezing cough.

Genzaburo’s heart sank in his chest as he watched how weak his father had become. Before he could say anything, though, there came a shout from the door. “Genzaburo! Oi!

Despite his sister’s protest, he tugged his kimono back up over his shoulders and stood up. Ao looked up at him, “I wonder what that could be about,” she pondered out loud while Genzaburo stepped back into the house and crossed over to the entrance. He slid open the door, finding Hideteru standing there in front of the house.

Much had changed for him since the battle. His house and family wealth had been looted and burned, his two companions were both dead, and the stiff way he held his shoulders was indicative of the slashing wound Genzaburo knew crossed his back. He had been one of the villagers defended by the ashigaru and was only saved after he had watched Genzaburo’s gamble. Since then, he had spoken to Genzaburo civilly for the first time in many years, and they had begun to repair that relationship.

“There you are!” Hideteru practically shouted at him. “There are joshi from the castle here to inspect the village after the attack. They asked my father for you by name!”

Upper-class samurai from Kochi Castle here to see him? That was unusual for a young goshi like Genzaburo, who was so far below them. “I wonder who the daimyo or Administrator Nonaka sent. Did they say what they wanted?” he tentatively asked Hideteru.

“I think they want to meet the hero of the hour. You saved the village.”

“I didn’t do anything!” Genzaburo protested. “I just . . .”

Hideteru grabbed his arm; fortunately, his uninjured one, thank the gods, and tugged on him. “Tell it to them yourself. Come on, quickly, quickly!”

Genzaburo allowed himself to be dragged outside and fell into a trot alongside Hideteru. He could see the village they were approaching. Most of the damage had been cleaned up, but the burned and charred ruins of several buildings still stood as a reminder of the attack. A crowd had gathered in the center of the village, and as Genzaburo approached it, he could see why.

Two samurai were standing in the center, conversing with Hideteru’s father. Both were dressed in simple, durable, but finely made kimonos, with gleaming swords that were tucked into their obi and flat-brimmed hats emblazoned with the crest of the Yamauchi clan perched upon their heads. They even wore wooden geta on their feet, the tall sandals not even a goshi samurai like Genzaburo was permitted to wear. One was shorter and stouter than the other, with a short beard and round face contrasting the taller, clean-shaven companion.

Genzaburo and Hideteru skidded to a halt a few paces from the samurai. The shoya‘s son dropped to his knees and bent forward until his hands and forehead were pressing into the dirt. Genzaburo moved down to one knee, a hand upon the other one, and his head lowered in respect. This was usually enough for most joshi, he had found, but even if he wanted to kowtow entirely, he couldn’t with his shoulder still healing.

Hideteru’s father spoke up. “Oh, this is Yamazaki Genzaburo, the young man I was telling you about who saved us from the bandits.” Genzaburo glanced up to see the taller joshi staring right at him with an amused look on his face. That expression distracted Genzaburo enough that he never saw the companion coming, not until he felt the wooden teeth of the man’s geta trapping his shoulder between them and pushing down hard.

“Get down when you are before your betters!” the man growled at Genzaburo. His world exploded in pain as the samurai had chosen his injured arm to make the point. It felt like it was on fire, and Genzaburo’s vision went blurry for a moment before he could recover.

The man was still pushing down on his shoulder though, shouting at him all the while. “Who gave you permission to lead Lord Yamauchi’s men into battle, eh? Typical goshi, trying to pretend you’re one of us. I should rid you of your head, maybe that would teach you your place!”

Oi, oi, that’s enough, Mi-chan,” the other man spoke up in a soft, calm voice. “Let him up.”

The stouter man relented, pulling back and giving a grunt as his only reply. The other man stepped forward, looking down at Genzaburo. At this distance, it was easy to see the richness of the plain fabric of his kimono, or his age in his early twenties, the prime of his life. “I apologize for Mitsuichi. He can be a little overzealous.”

“So you’re the hero of the hour, hmm?” the taller samurai asked as he looked Genzaburo over. The shoya spoke up, giving him an enthusiastic but exaggerated account of Genzaburo’s heroics. None of it was true, of course, and Genzaburo’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He hadn’t dueled the bandit leader or held off a half-dozen horsemen at once single-handedly! In truth, all he had done was stumble down a hill blowing into the conch shell as hard as he could, screaming when he wasn’t, and waving his short sword around in the air. It had distracted the bandits long enough for the ashigaru gunners, rallying behind his brother-in-law, to drive them away. Not that the truth mattered. Everyone in the village, the gunners included, treated him like it was all his doing.

Genzaburo kept his eyes lowered as the man paced around in front of him. “Do you know what vexes me?” the samurai spoke so casually and calmly that Genzaburo wasn’t sure what he had heard.

His head shot up, “Vexes?”

“Indeed,” said the man as he crossed his arms, tucking them into his sleeves. “I think about it all the time. I can’t stop thinking about it! Tosa is a rich land. We have the sea’s abundance! We have the greatest forests in all of Japan!” His arms started to move as his voice grew in volume and he moved animatedly. “Half of Osaka is built from Tosa timber! We have more than enough people for our needs.”

He turned and looked intensely at Genzaburo. “But do you know what our problem is, Genzaburo?” He didn’t give him a chance to reply before excitedly continuing. “We lack imagination! There’s no willingness to change how we do things and improve. If we continue to stand still, Tosa will always be small and insignificant, not like Kaga or Satsuma.”

Genzaburo stared at the man, wide-eyed and unmoving. He had never been much of a political person or really thought of much beyond this river valley, but this demonstration had his rapt attention. Maybe there was a chance for the goshi . . .

The samurai’s eyes were on Genzaburo once more, and he strode over towards him, “Now then, young goshi, what vexes you?” He squatted down in front of Genzaburo, dropping down to his level. “Let me guess, you chafe at the restrictions of this class, hmm? That you are a warrior, a samurai, but less than others, no matter how courageous you are.”

You’re damn right, I do, Genzaburo thought as the man spoke. All his life, he had been less. Especially when he was studying in the castle town, around groups of upper-class samurai who seemed to enjoy treading all over the goshi like him. He had seen more than one of them take a goshi‘s life without consequence for even a perceived insult.

“Well, everyone has his place in this world,” the man continued, “The farmers, the merchants, the goshi, the joshi, the daimyo, the shogun, even the Empress herself have their place.” This caused Genzaburo’s eyes to widen in surprise; he was not expecting that. It angered him, he felt mocked by this man and made to look like a fool.

Genzaburo hadn’t realized he was glaring until the samurai dryly commented, “Oh, now there is a good face. I can see the fire in those eyes now. Good . . .” He lifted himself out of the squat, towering over Genzaburo again. “You want to become more than what you are, don’t you? You believe you are strong enough and determined enough to change your place in this world? In that case, maybe our missions can have a common goal. The world is changing. Far to the west there are new foreigners with wonders we have never seen before, and Japan must be ready. Ships that can sail without the wind! Cannons and firearms that can pierce any armor! Kites that carry people through the sky! Medicines for all illnesses! How can we compete against that?”

The samurai turned away and gestured to a villager holding his horse’s reins. “Mitsuichi, it is time we departed.” The shoya looked aghast at them. “But my lord, what about the inspection? There is still so much that needs to be seen . . .”

“I have seen what I came here to see.” The samurai turned to look back at Genzaburo. “If you want to change your place in this world, then I may have need of you. When you are healed of your wounds, come to Kochi and find me. I will put you to work.” He put his foot in the stirrup and climbed up onto his horse and turned it away towards the road, along with his companion, who had not stopped glaring at Genzaburo this entire time.

Genzaburo had been silent during this encounter, drawn in as he was by the speaker’s rhetoric and never even given a chance to speak for himself. Dangling this hope in front of him, though, he came to a sudden realization. He did not know the man’s name. Genzaburo leapt to his feet. “Who are you!? What is this mission you’re talking about?” he shouted.

The samurai wheeled his horse around after coming to a stop. Genzaburo could see the broad, confident grin on his face and the gleam in his eye. “My name is Nonaka Kenzan, and I am going to change Tosa’s place in the world. I will make it the strongest domain in all of Japan!”

****

It was nearly a week before Genzaburo’s shoulder was healed enough to permit him to travel to Kochi, the castle town that was the capital city of Tosa Domain and home of the Yamauchi daimyo and his family. He spent most of that time preparing for the journey, though most evenings were spent being feted by half the village instead so he fell asleep each night exhausted and with far too much sake in his belly.

At last, however, it was dawn on the morning of his departure. There was a somber mood that hung over the Yamazaki household. While it was true that he had studied in Kochi, it was always known he would return at the end of his studies. This time, though, there was no guarantee.

Genzaburo was dressed simply for the road in a plain kimono and hakama. He had a small bundle of personal possessions attached to a strap looped over his back along with a flat straw hat. After the battle, he had tracked down the bandit horse he had ridden and kept it. It was a small, hardy pony, well-suited for the mountains and currently snorted and pawed at the ground while his brother-in-law held the reins.

Ao’s expressive eyes glistened with tears, but her mouth was set in a resolute expression. He knew she was trying to be strong for his sake, and even as his own eyes began to burn, he gave her a gentle smile. “Ane-ue . . . take care of father. I will send what I can to help. It…it was an honor to be on the same battlefield as you.”

She shook her head, and he felt something pressed into his hands. He looked down at a small, cloth-wrapped bundle. His sister smiled faintly, “Just something for you to eat on the way.” He didn’t trust himself to say more as he tightly embraced her and pulled back. “Just be safe and take care of yourself, Genzaburo. You have to learn more swordsmanship in the city and come home and teach it to me.”

Their father, weak as he was, was sitting on the edge of the veranda with his cane clutched in his hands. He had barely spoken the past few days, even when Genzaburo talked to him directly. He looked old, tired, and incredibly frail.

Genzaburo dropped down to the ground in front of his father on his hands and knees and bowed his head further. “Father, I . . .” His voice caught in his throat for a moment, “I take my leave of you. I will make you proud in the capital.” His heart fell as his father remained silent and unmoving. When he rose, he did not meet his sister’s worried look and silently took the reins of his horse and started walking it towards the gate.

A sudden, commanding voice made him stop suddenly in his tracks as surely as if he had walked into a wall.

“Genzaburo!”

He turned in shock to see his father standing there, leaning on his cane but with an energy about him that Genzaburo had not seen in years. His father drew in a deep breath, and his eyes were narrowed and focused. “Yamazaki Genzaburo, I release you from your familial responsibilities. You have your own path to follow, so don’t look back! Go to the capital, continue the road to komyo, make a name for yourself! Go! Go! I am already proud of you!”

Genzaburo blinked back tears that burned their ways down his cheeks while he led the horse past the threshold. He could still hear his father’s fading cheering as he wiped his face on his sleeve and climbed up into the saddle.

Genzaburo’s horse ambled down the road through the village and he found himself distracted from his thoughts of family and home as he looked over the village one last time. Despite the damage caused by the raid and the dead they mourned, the village was returning to normal. Farmers toiled in paddies, and he could hear the sound of children laughing in the distance.

A pair of young men were walking down the road in the opposite direction with muskets balanced over their shoulders. Genzaburo recognized them as two of the village boys he instructed in marksmanship, and he nodded at the two as he passed.

The village would get by without him, Genzaburo thought as he gave his horse a small nudge to pick up the pace. He was scared and eager to see what was to come. It was a long road ahead to Kochi and beyond.

****