The voice had barely died when Tadayoshi turned his head. Ei was already racing back to the village. The swordsman stood up, picked up his sword and placed the scabbard in one of the holes in his clothes near the waist, tying with the sash.
He looked between the boy’s back, already reaching the house, and his sword. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh. I’m gonna regret this, he thought and went after Ei.
Staying out of sight, Tadayoshi observed the situation. It seemed everyone had gathered at the center of the village. There was no one on the fields anymore; the woman, children and elderly clustered near Daisuke-dono’ house. A few cried, but most watched in silence, their faces either full of fear or empty. The ones who given up already, Tadayoshi thought, looking for Ei. The boy was there, pushing his way to the front, but Sumire-dono held him.
The eleven riders were across them. The bandits wore no armor nor any other kind of protection. If their horses weren’t so groomed and the saddles well made, they might have passed for common thieves, Tadayoshi knew. Their weapons as well. Like the swords he analyzed the day before, the ones the bandits carried now were simple, but they all had a certain quality. And against the tools the villagers had, those sharp spears, katana and even that wood axe looks like weapons of soldiers.
Only one rider was different. Though he stood behind the group trying to make his presence unnoticed, his dark green silk cloak gave him away. Tadayoshi couldn’t see his face covered by the hood, but he could see the katana on his waist. A samurai, the swordsman knew, his hand tightening around the handle of his own sword.
The rest of the villagers stood between the two groups, led by Bandages and the two others that held the swords. Tadayoshi recognized some; the messenger was there. The old man who grabbed Daisuke-dono’ sleeve as well, along with few women from the fields and some others. But those who choose to fight barely reached twenty people.
You lost the only advantage you had, Tadayoshi thought. And that’s not all. Even from this distance the swordsman could tell; anger had driven them this far, but now it left them. Even Bandages trembled in fear and cleaned the sweat from his hand on his clothes. Say you’ll fight is easy, but when the time comes… A weapon isn’t the same as courage. Tadayoshi closed his eyes. Listen to Daisuke-dono’ wish and live, once again he wanted to scream.
“What? Gonna resist?” one of the bandits mocked and his companions laughed.
“Got courage, but it ain’t gonna be like last time,” another one said. “If don’t wanna die, leave our village.”
“This village is ours!” Bandages screamed. “We’re not giving up without a fight.” The ones by his side agreed. Those words seemed to fuel them with courage; most stopped trembling and some even lost the fear in their faces.
“No!” Daisuke-dono’ voice echoed. He was among the women, children and elderly, but the villagers opened path to him. “We won’t fight! We’ll…” he closed his eyes and bit his lips, but the tears still fell, “we’ll leave this village.” Despite the pain in his face, his voice was firm.
The right decision, Tadayoshi agreed in his mind, nodding his head without realizing. It’s not courage to fight when the outcome is so obvious. The people are more important than the houses. The villagers murmured agreeing, even some of those who chose to fight.
Bandages looked around, staring their faces and then looked at the leader. “We’re not abandoning our homes that easily, Dai-jii! We have to avenge our friends and family!” the young man screamed and turned to face the bandits.
Damn… a bit more and Daisuke-dono would’ve convince them, the swordsman thought, sighing.
A bandit missing part of his right ear rode to the villagers. Bandages grabbed the handle with both hands and raised the sword, but his arms trembled so much fighting would be impossible. The thief hit Bandages’ sword with his own weapon, disarming the young man with just one blow. The katana flew and hit the side of a house while Bandages watched it with his mouth hanging open.
The villagers stood their ground, but when two more bandits, a bald one and the other with a scar on across his forehead, rode to join their companion, one villager threw his shovel away and ran. It didn’t take long for the rest to follow and then only Bandages remained. While staring the bandits, he took a step back, but his legs trembled so much a rock was enough to make him lose his balance, and he fell backwards.
“Where’s all that courage now?” the bald bandit said, drawing his katana and stabbing the villager on the shoulder. Bandages screams died under the bandits’ laughter.
“Stop! We’re already losing our homes!” Daisuke-dono shouted above the scream and laughs. He went down his knees and made his forehead meet the ground. “Please, don’t take any more from us. We already lost so much…”
The bandits’ laughter grew louder with the old man’s supplications and tears. Sumire-dono cried so much now Ei finally managed to shake off from the woman. He raced, stopped ahead of the leader and stared the bandits.
“Hey…” The bandit with the scar stopped laughing and stared Ei, narrowing his eyes. “Ain’t that woman’s brat?”
Bald never took his eyes from the boy. Not even when he pulled his sword from Bandages’ shoulder, drawing more screams and blood, but this time none of the bandits laughed. One of villagers, the one who was holding the wakizashi, raced to Bandages and dragged him to the others.
Sumire-dono finally realized Ei wasn’t next to her anymore and looked around, the tears flying everywhere. When the woman saw the boy, she raced to him and hugged him, turning herself into a shield.
When Scar dismounted, the villagers raced to join Sumire-dono and Ei. Bald and Ear blocked their path with the horses, swinging their weapons to anyone who tried bypassing them. Scar grabbed the woman’s hair and pulled hard. Her screams filled the village, but he didn’t stop. When Sumire-dono couldn’t stand the pain anymore, her arms lost strength and he yanked Ei from her.
Scar stared the boy, his eyes wide and full of bloodlust, almost a mad man’s stare. “It’s your fault my brother died!” he spat the words on Ei’s face.
The child didn’t change his expression, staring the bandit back, his eyes showing only determination.
Everyone could only watch in silence as Scar raised his spear, his breathing irregular and short, a wild smile on his face. Before his hand came down, something flew and hit him on the side of head. A prickle of blood ran down his cheek as the pebble bounced a few times on the ground with everyone’s eye on it. Scar cleaned the blood and then turned his head, looking for who had thrown it.
The villagers moved in closer together, hiding the culprit. The fear had left their faces as if never existed. They all stared Scar, Bald and Ear with eyes almost as strong as the boy’s. “Let me through,” a voice echoed among them, “let me through!” Someone pushed their way to the front.
Daisuke-dono never looked so old, never looked so frail. Even so, he raised his chin, not backing down. Scar threw Ei aside and walked towards him. Sumire-dono grabbed the boy again.
“I told we’re abandoning ours homes!” Daisuke-dono screamed. “We will leave!”
The bandit attacked him twice with the butt of the spear. Once on the leader’s stomach and the other on the head. The villagers rushed to him, but Bald and Ear swung their weapons, drawing blood from a few and contained the rest.
Daisuke-dono fell to his knees, but bit down his lips hard to hold the scream. The old man took a deep breath and stood up. With blood covering half his face, the chief stared the bandit with his one good eye.
For a moment, no one dared moving or saying anything. If not for the villagers’ cry, there would be only silence. Scar raised his spear once again, but Daisuke-dono did not tremble nor beg for his life. All the old man did was close his eye and wait for death with his head held high.
But it never came. As silence overtook the village, the chief finally opened his eye. Not even the bandit was paying him any attention anymore. Scar had turned his head around, looking at someone who held the butt of the spear behind him.
The man who denies being a samurai stared Scar in the eyes without any hint of emotion on his face.
The bandit opened his mouth and then closed it, narrowing his eyes. Tadayoshi could almost see Scar’s mind working. Though my clothes are this bad, I don’t look like them, but he can tell I’m no reinforcement. Not me and not this soon, the swordsman thought. After a heartbeat, Scar smiled and his eyes grew wide. Now he realizes I’m only a traveler with no connection to this village, but stupid enough to get involved.
Before Scar moved, Tadayoshi glanced the others. Bald and Ear were too stunned to do anything right away. Even the villagers seemed paralyzed. I’m just one man, but they’re wary, the swordsman realized it. If they’re afraid to repeat the same mistake, I can use it… though it’d better if they underestimated me.
The others bandits remained where they were, some turning their heads to the man behind them. Tadayoshi still couldn’t see the face of the man in the silk cloak, but his stance above the horse had changed a little. He’s interested, Tadayoshi could tell, despite the samurai not showing any killing intent.
The swordsman glanced at the villagers and then the chief. Ei was the only one to realized, widening his eyes and moving as quiet as he could. Tadayoshi smiled and turned to Scar.
“Tell me something,” he spoke slowly, giving time for Ei to drag Daisuke-dono away. It took a moment, but the rest of the villagers finally understood and helped the boy and the old man. The bandits didn’t even notice. “Why are you attacking this village?”
Though Tadayoshi talked casually to pretend as if keeping his grip on the spear wasn’t much effort, he was already sweating and his arm throbbing. If I’m gonna save this damn village full of idiots, I need to put some fear into them first, he thought, his fingers white from the strength.
“Why?” Though it was a simple question, Scar seemed confused “Because we want… because we can! They’re weak and We’re strong!”
“Strong?” Tadayoshi repeated the word loudly, looking to the other bandits. He turned back to Scar and leaned in closer. “Show me,” the swordsman whispered with a smug.
The bandit had no reaction for an instant. It’s now. Tadayoshi knew he had to be fast and precise. Before anyone could move, the swordsman struck the spear with his free arm, breaking the weapon in two. Ignoring the sudden pain, he stabbed the bandit’s back near the heart with the sharp piece in his hand.
Scar staggered and turned to face his the swordsman. He managed to pull the piece of wood from his back, tearing off a bit of flesh and cloth, the blood spilling on the ground. He placed a hand on the wound, trying in vain to stop the bleeding. As he coughed blood, staining the earth before Tadayoshi’s feet red, his eyes lost the light. The bandit fell forward and died with his face buried on the ground.
His companions reacted, screaming and charging towards Tadayoshi. Only the man in the silk cloak remained where he was, a little more interested in the swordsman now. Thank the heavens for that, Tadayoshi though, concentrating on the enemies before him. Calm and precision will scare them.
Taking a deep breath, he picked the rest of the spear and threw, hitting Bald right on the chest. The bandit fell, but he didn’t let go of the reins, and his horse turned, knocking Ear. Two down, Tadayoshi thought, turning around to face the others riding towards him.
It was stupid to fight mounted enemies on foot, even with a plan. Tadayoshi knew that, but from the way they rode, the swordsman could tell his opponents were amateurs without any kind of combat training on horse. Betting his life and the villagers’ on it, he picked larges rocks and threw on the animals.
One of the horses stopped, neighing and raising its front paws. The rider fell backwards and two bandits behind him didn’t react in time. They all crashed, men and animals falling together. Even with all the screams, Tadayoshi heard bones breaking under the weight of the horses, but the bandits’ voice were soon lost under the animals’ protests. Four to go.
The closest one tried to run him over, but the swordsman dodged. Before the bandit could use his weapon, he grabbed the reins and jumped sideways, using all his weight to pull it. The horse turned sharply and headed towards the villagers. They ran out of the way as fast as they could and the animal crashed into a house. The horse fell on the rider and the bandit stopped moving at all.
His breathing was short and quick, but Tadayoshi had no to think and turned to the other three. A bandit with a dirty beard didn’t make the same mistake, attacking with his spear instead of trying running the swordsman over. Tadayoshi was counting on that, barely realizing the smile on his lips. I guess my luck isn’t so bad after all, he thought, reading his stance, both arms aligned.
When the weapon was within reach, he dodged the attack and grabbed the spear, using all his strength to knock the rider off the horse. Dirty Beard fell and before he got up, Tadayoshi stabbed him on the neck, the tip of the spear piercing the ground.
The two that remained stopped and exchanged looks. They turned around, but they were so clumsy one fell and the animal went away. The other almost fell as well, but he managed to keep on the horse and rode back to the forest. The bandit stood up and ran after his horse.
If his breathing wasn’t irregular, and his arms didn’t weigh more than it should, Tadayoshi would have laughed. When the bandits passed by the cloaked man, the swordsman saw a bit of the samurai’s face. He’s smiling, Tadayoshi noticed, a shiver running throughout his body. He slowed down his breathing and watched the man’s reaction.
Still on his horse, the cloaked man rode towards Tadayoshi and when he was close enough, dismounted. The samurai’s bloodlust was so intense it made the swordsman shiver.
So my luck is rotten after all, Tadayoshi thought, his hand around the handle of his katana.