Toshiro sat concealed in the bushes on the hillside watching as Lord Taira’s men ransacked the village. Most of the villagers were huddled in the village’s single muddy street, some looking with fearful eyes at the headless bodies of their elders who lay before them. Questioning Lord Taira’s authority to search their homes was not the brightest thing the three men could have done.
They did have the right to do so though, mused Toshiro, unfortunately for them it was also their duty. This was not Lord Taira’s territory and Lord Matsuke would be incensed when he found out what had happened here. He would probably have blamed the elders for not stepping forwards and stating his lordship over this collection of miserable hovels, so the poor men were doomed either way.
Toshiro looked back up the hill and with a practiced eye saw that his men had finally reached their appointed positions. Good, he thought, I have had enough of this nonsense. He stood up, straightened his robes and quickly checked that his hair had no twigs or leaves in it.
“Hey you in the village!” he shouted, his voice echoing around the rocky valley in which the settlement lay.
Lord Taira’s retainers took a few seconds to locate the unexpected caller, then one pointed and shouted to his comrades. Lord Taira and his three Samurai retainers wheeled their horses, all of them raising a hand to shield their eyes from the sun now peeping over the ridge above Toshiro.
“In the name of Lord Matsuke I order you bandits to stop pestering his vassals and leave immediately or face his wrath!” shouted Toshiro.
The Lord seemed a little taken aback at this direct challenge. Not many people dis so for he had a reputation for being quick to anger and vengefully protective of what he saw as his exalted station. He sat up straight in the saddle and faced Toshiro.
“I am Lord Taira and I am no bandit!” he yelled, his anger clear in his voice. “These peasants are hiding a fugitive from my justice!”
“What is the name of this fugitive my lord?” asked Toshiro, already knowing the answer.
“The Ronin Watanabe Toshiro. A murderer and a thief!” said Taira.
Toshiro noticed that the Samurai were urging their men to advance on his position. He smiled and congratulated himself on his impromptu plan. However, they hadn’t moved far enough yet.
“I am Watanabe Toshiro” he declared. “I have never been to this village, so you have murdered three innocent elders for dutifully informing you that you were trespassing on Lord Matsuke’s territory.”
Lord Taira rubbed his mouth on the back of his glove, and using it as a cover said a few soft words to his Samurai. They immediately spurred their horses forwards yelling at their Ashigaru to follow them.
Toshiro waited until the Samurai had cantered through the shallow stream that ran beside the village before swiftly drawing his katana and waving it above him.
The air between the Samurai and Toshiro thickened with arrows as the Ronin concealed on the hillside above him unleashed the first volley. One Samurai threw up his arms with a shrill cry and fell from his horse three arrows sticking from his chest. The other two were both hit and their horses went down throwing them back into the stream. A couple of Ashigaru running close behind their masters also fell.
A good start thought Toshiro. Now for the second part of his plan.
Across the valley the villagers had scattered, running for the cover of their hovels. Several of the slower Ashigaru retreated and formed a thin wall in front of their Lord who seemed to be having trouble controlling his horse. Never ride an untrained stallion into battle you fool, thought Toshiro. Lord Taira had obviously thought more about how the horse looked rather than how it behaved.
In the stream the remainder of the now leaderless Ashigaru were struggling to control two injured horses and recover their wounded masters when the second volley of arrows hit. One of the Samurai had been helped to his feet just as an arrow pierced his left eye throwing him once more into the stream. The other had been shielded by two of his loyal retainers whose bodies now lay across his pinning him in the water.
Toshiro held up his Katana again then waved it forward. The dozen or so Ronin broke cover, drawing their Katanas and abandoning their bows. Toshiro led them down the hill and they ran pell-mell into the water. The Ashigaru did not stand a chance and in a few brutal seconds were cut down to a man. In the middle of the melee the monk Benkei, Toshiro’s lieutenant, dispatched the remaining samurai with a crushing blow from his two-handed mallet.
Toshiro strode out of the water and stood on the bank of the stream facing Lord Taira.
Across the valley the remaining Ashigaru looked on aghast at the butchery of their comrades, but they stood their ground, they knew their duty. Lord Taira had steadied his steed and was staring white-faced at the blood-soaked Ronin.
“Was it worth it Taira? Was it worth the loss of these good men, not to mention upsetting your neighbour?” asked Toshiro.
“You shall die for this treachery Watanabe” growled Lord Taira.
“Really Taira? Who is going to kill me? You?” Toshiro taunted. “You know you cannot best me with your blade, even if you could get that pretty pony to charge.”
“Oh Toshiro, I have other means” said Taira.
Saying this he reached into a pouch at his belt and threw and handful of what looked like knucklebones into the mud between them.
“Do you really think that I would have ventured this far into that old fool’s territory with so few men if I did not have other assistance?” he said, his voice beginning to take on a maniacal tone.
Where the knucklebones had landed the earth was beginning to shake and crack.
Toshiro watched, unable to tear his gaze away, until a stinging slap brought him back to his senses. Benkei was standing in front of him his face filled with an emotion Toshiro had never seen in him before – fear.
“Get the men back across the stream Toshiro, these Oni will not willingly cross running water. I will hold them as long as I can” said Benkei urgently.
The old man turned his back on Toshiro and began a sonorous chant while writing fiery kanji in the air before him with one of his fingers.
Toshiro ran back to the stream shouting at his men to retreat. They gratefully did as they were directed, many looking terrified as from the earth crawled six red demons, each dragging a huge naginata.
“We’re safe Benkei!” Toshiro shouted.
Benkei began backing away from the Oni who had started to advance. The leading Oni paused before the kanji inscription Benkei had written in the air. He looked at the others, then put out one gnarled and taloned hand. The monk bowed and threw a purse heavy with silver which the Oni deftly caught. Toshiro’s hand went down to his belt and he realised that his purse was missing. Benkei backed into the water slowly and then pointed at Lord Taira.
On the other side of the narrow valley. Lord Taira was now on foot. One sight of the Oni had caused his stallion to throw him and now he was left with just four Ashigaru. Two had run after the horse and another had fainted at his feet.
The Oni turned and looked at Lord Taira. Once more it held out its hand.
“I summoned you! You are mine to command! Kill those men!” he screeched, pointing at Benkei and Toshiro.
Benkei walked out of the water and joined Toshiro at the foot of the hillside.
“Summoning demons is one thing, but they will always require payment, especially if you want them to cross water and battle a servant of the Buddha” said Benkei.
“Silver well spent old friend” said Toshiro. “What will happen now?”
“It is best that we do not stay around to see” said Benkei, his voice low with regret ” for they will kill everything before them”.
“The villagers as well?” asked Toshiro.
Benkei shrugged and began trudging up the hill.
The screams did not stop until they were three miles away.