Talent for Survival
An L5R Fan fiction thingy that I wrote in about 3 hours. I thought it was rather good. Enjoy!
On the border of Lion lands, a chill winter was beginning to settle into season. A light snow fell as a column of Lion Clan samurai, their amour shinning in the faint light, the decorative Lion manes on their helmets swaying in the wind, escorted a group of men roped together who followed on foot. The walking men were a sorry looking lot, thieves and cutthroats by the look of them, who shivered pathetically in the cold, their clothes barely adequate to protect them from the winter chill. Many of them hobbled about barefoot. Matsu Daikyuki, the lord of these lands, led their Lion captors. He was a proud figure, a veteran of many battles, standing tall and alert in the saddle of his horse, the Lion samurai watched the countryside with the steady gaze of a man who ruled all he could see.
That steady gaze narrowed as Daikyuki saw a shadow hidden within a bamboo thicket. The commander motioned to two of his men; the samurai bowed and spurred their horses towards the thicket. Daikyuki watched with an interested eye.
With a rattle of dried bamboo stalks, the shadow fled from the thicket, revealing itself as a man in a red hat, carrying an enormous sword upon his back. Daikyuki grimaced, a ronin by all looks, he rather disliked ronin. The fleeing man in the red hat was quick on his feet, but he had no chance as the two riders overtook him. Wielding wicked looking spears with barbs and prongs they thrust at the man. The ronin was fast enough to avoid getting skewered, but the barbs caught in his clothing. They had him. The Lion lord nodded in approval.
That nod of approval turned into a frown as the ronin, displaying ferocious strength, grabbed the haft of one of the weapons and yanked it's wielder from his horse. Turning, he swung the butt of the spear at the second rider, who narrowly avoided getting knocked from his horse. Annoyed, Daikyuki motioned to his men who quickly knocked arrows and aimed at the ronin. The ronin in the red hat turned and met eyes with the Lion commander. Daikyuki held up his hand, ready to order his men to fire. The ronin's gaze was hard, but Daikyuki's was harder. After a long moment, the ronin let go of the weapon and put his hands on the back of his head. The riders, one getting to his feet, the other nursing a broken nose, took this opportunity to knock the ronin to the ground. Humiliated before their commander and comrades, they took their revenge, betting the prone ronin senselessly. Giving his men a moment to regain their lost pride, Daikyuki gave the order for the ronin to be bound up with the rest.
Continuing on, the Matsu Commander made a note to discipline the two riders, they had almost failed in their task and that would have been unacceptable. They were good men; he would hate to lose them to seppuku. A few days fasting would teach them a valuable lesson. As he thought about this, his second in command was taking the ronin's sword, looking at the great blade, called a no dachi, impressed. It was big enough to take down a horse and rider in a single blow. A good quality weapon as well, from the looks of it. Daikyuki smiled inside, though the expression never reached his face. No doubt the sake would flow tonight and quite the interesting tales would be told about the capture of the ronin.
Looking at the man in the red hat, the ronin staggered along with the rest of the prisoners, his face bloody from the beating. He was a good catch, very strong. Fierce. Daikyuki could admire the fight in him, even if nothing else. Even in chains, his head was still held high. Oh yes, he could admire the fight in the man, even if it wouldn't save his life. He'd be dead by this time tomorrow.
[i]This Time Tomorrow......[/i]
They arrived at the town called Copper Village. It was called this because it, naturally, contained a copper mine. The mine was the only holding of relative value in Daikyuki's lands, and he relied on it to pay his taxes every year. A problem has arisen though.
At the entrance to the mine, Daikyuki stopped and turned his horse to face the prisoners. "Each of you," he began, "are guilty of crimes that would usually, result in torture then execution." Rapists, murders, draft dodgers and ronins. All crimes worthy of a gruesome death, in Daikyuki's opinion. "I have decided to show you mercy." A brief look of hope bloomed on the prisoners’ faces, as their bindings were cut. "Instead, your deaths may have some meaning." He gestured towards the mine. "Inside, foul beasts have infested the Emperor's lands. You have the honor of fighting to cleanse this place of evil." One of the beasts screaming could be heard from inside the mine. It was a bone chilling sound. Amazing how quickly hope could turn to despair, Daikyuki thought. The prisoners looked at the cave opening with fear plain on their faces. All except the ronin in the red hat though....he just looked...interested.
Daikyuki went on. "If you remove the beasts from the mine, your fates may be reconsidered." A quick death instead of a long one. "May the Fortunes have mercy on you." The commander moved aside, as each man was handed a heavy bladed knife and a torch, then were prodded inside. Some, looked like they would fight to stay out of the mine, but eventually, uncertain death won out against certain death trying to fight thirty horsed and fully armed samurai. The ronin in the red hat was the last to go in, casting one scornful look at the Lion before vanishing into the darkness.
With that completed, Daikyuki dismounted, rubbing his neck. He wasn't as young as he used to be, and these long rides were beginning to wear thin on him. "Watch the entrance until morning." He commanded his samurai.
His second in command, a young but keen lad, looked into the darkness. "Do you think they will do better than the last bunch we sent in Daikyuki - sama?"
The older samurai shook his head. "I doubt it, but they'll thin the herd a bit more atleast." He would not lose more men then he had to in this. The first squad he'd sent in, including his own son, had never come out. He could not afford another disaster like that. "Keep a close watch, and note when the yelling stops. If they keep up yelling longer than the last group, atleast we're making progress. I'll have my tea in my tent." Was his last comment, as the prisoners inside began to scream.
[i]Even Later This Time Tomorrow......[/i]
With the sounds of battle having stopped hours ago, the guards outside the mine entrance had started up a game of Fortunes and Winds. They talked in hushed tones over the dice bowl.
"Think we'll go down there tomorrow?"
"I hope not, did you hear those men yelling? Chills my bones it does. Ha! Two fives, lets see anyone beat that." There were grumbles as the dice were passed around.
"I wouldn't be afraid to go down there and show those beasts what a true Lion samurai can do, it would do better upon us then sending these scum down."
"Don't be foolish boy. They sent down fifty men the first time, we didn't see any alive again. A wise man weakens his enemy before crushing him."
"Well I'd still like to go down, be nice to get blooded before fighting the Khan."
"You'll get your chance boy you'll....well I'll be damned! two sixes! I win I w.......sweet Mother of Akodo something's coming out!!!"
The dice game was forgotten as the men hurriedly grabbed their weapons and ran towards the mine entrance, to meet the dark figure, which had emerged from within. Chill from the cold and from fear of what lay inside made fingers clumsy, weapons dropping before being picked back up hastily. They advanced cautiously upon the figure, ready to strike. Before a blow could be struck though, the figure collapsed onto the ground.
The tension broken, a torch was brought and the figure was looked at. The ronin in the red hat, covered completely in black ichors lay upon the ground snoring soundly. They looked at each other wordlessly, before the second in command finally said. "Someone go wake the commander."
[i]This Time Tomorrow, Only A Day After[/i]
Daikyuki looked the ronin over carefully. Someone had tossed a bucket of water on the man to clean off most of the blood, but he was still a mess. He had more wounds than the Lion could count, all non-life threatening though. His eyes though, they were what drew the Lion in, deep, black, damaged, angry.
"So where did you hide ronin, while the others died?" Daikyuki walked around the ronin while he talked, the man kneeled in the center of the tent, two spear blades at his throat.
"I did not Matsu - sama." The ronin answered, trying to turn his head to follow the Lion commander’s movements. "Ask your men, they saw the blood of the ones I killed." His eyes met with the Matsu commanders, until one of the guards poked him especially hard with the spear. The ronin lowered his eyes again.
The Lion Lord considered the mans words for a moment. "Yes, I think your telling the truth. A real warrior you are ronin." He continued to pace around the man. "Are they all dead?"
The ronin was quiet for a moment. "The men you sent with me, or the monsters, Matsu - sama?"
"The beasts of course."
The ronin reached to adjust his hat, getting a viscous poke for his trouble. Daikyuki was surprised someone hadn't taken the hat from him by now, but then he wouldn't terribly surprised, it was a terribly ugly hat. The ronin finally answered. "No, there are more. Many more Matsu - sama."
Daikyuki frowned, but the expression never reached his face. "Well then ronin, you have the honor of going down again with the next batch. Perhaps they'll value your experience. Take him away."
As the guards escorted the ronin out, Daikyuki's second in command sided up to his leader. "How Daikyuki - sama? How could he survive?"
Sitting down at this table, Daikyuki looked over the papers. Blight and famine on the rice harvest, he would never pay his taxes without the mine operational. "The same way most men survive their first battle, luck. I doubt he'll come up a second time. Go get me more convicts. Twenty this time." The young samurai bowed and made his way out of the room, leaving Daikyuki alone to think. Something about that ronin as the man was dragged out...something strange.....oh yes...he was smiling. Disturbed, though he could not think of why, Daikyuki went back to his letter. He had to convince the tax collector to wait just one more month.....
[i]Many Many This Time Tomorrow's Later...[/i]
The ronin was shoved roughly into the Matsu commander’s tent, though this time the guards did not follow him in, taking up positions on either side of the entrance outside. Bemused, the ronin adjust his hat and stepped further inside. Daikyuki sat with his fingers poised above his desk, the letters from the tax collectors had piled up. He motioned towards a cushion across from him. "Sit ronin, it's time we talk."
Moving carefully, as if he expected for the guards to come in at any moment and beat him senseless, the ronin moved over and sat down. The Lion and the ronin in the red hat watched each over across the table, waiting for each to make the first move. Finally, Daikyuki broke the silence. "How many times have you gone down now?"
Adjusting his hat again, the ronin considered. "Five times, I think Matsu - sama." When they'd brought him in, the ronin had been lean. Three meals a day for the past month had brought out his true physique though, he fairly bulged with muscle. Other than the tattered beard, and that horrible hat, some woman might actually find this man attractive Daikyuki mused.
"You keep coming out, alive, when all others have died." He stated, eyes boring into the ronin.
"Yes Matsu - sama." The man replied, somewhat sullenly.
"Including, fifty of my best men. Led by my own son!" The Lions iron control broke for a moment, he slammed his fist against the table, half standing, accusing the ronin of this terrible crime, living where his son had died.
In the same tone, the ronin answered. "Yes Matsu - sama." He thought for a moment, then added. "It was not easy though."
Sitting back down, Daikyuki breathed deeply to steady himself. "It would seem you have a talent for survival. But that is not what I need."
The ronin looked blankly at the Lion. "What would that be Matsu - sama?"
The Lions hand caressed his stack of letters. "I need someone who wants those beasts dead more than he wants to survive. If, you come out of that mine alive this time, and those beasts are still alive, you will have a very long, very unfortunate death ronin. Do you hear me?"
The ronin quietly considered his offers. "I hear you very well Matsu - sama. I am now very motivated to see these beasts dead."
"Good good." Daikyuki looked down to see he had crumpled one of the letters in a clenched fist. He let the paper go and smoothed it carefully. "Mind, I don't think the promise of death really frightens a man like you ronin. So I will, sweeten the deal, as the Yasuki say." The ronin watched without talking, waiting for more. "The battle with the Khan is coming, and the Lion will need strong men to win. Men like you ronin. If you complete this task for me, you have a place within my command."
Like everything else Daikyuki had said, the ronin in the red hat considered his words. "That is very generous of you Matsu - sama, I think I have little choice but to accept. If I may ask a question?" The Lion motioned that he could. "It is a grand offer to a man you know nothing of."
Daikyuki smiled, the ronin in the red hat looked taken aback by the expression on the Lion's normally impassive face. "ah but I do know you ronin. I know exactly who you are, or atleast who you used to be." He picked up one of the papers on his desk. "A man like you does not just appear out of no where. Oh no. He leaves a very definite mark upon the world. There was once a man who was a hero and a villain at the same time. Some, said he had the honor of a rat with the last grain of rice in the basket. A thug and a thief. Others, said he was a valiant hero, undefeatable in battle, a killer of monsters. This Hero, or villain, depending on who you ask, ended up joining the Imperial Legions and made even more of a name for himself. Eventually though, his past caught up with him. An Emerald Magistrate accused him of high crimes. Our hero was suddenly just a villain again, cast out from his own clan, lucky to be alive. His name was- "
The ronin cut him off. "Names aren't important." He said bluntly, real anger in his voice. The two guards outside looked in, hands on their weapons. Somewhat annoyed at being interrupted, the Lion motioned for his men to be calm.
"No worry then, what you were is not important. I am only truly worried about the future. Serve, and you shall be rewarded ronin!" He stood then, command in his voice. The ronin looked up at the Lion, then bowed his head.
"Yes Matsu - sama, I shall obey. Give me thirty men, and your mine shall be empty by this time tomorrow."
The Lion nodded. "Go now." The ronin stood up and backed his way out of the tent. After a few moments, Daikyuki's second in command entered, the commander was once again sitting, looking over his letters. He hovered uncomfterably until the Matsu commander noticed him. "Yes lad?"
The boy bowed. "I heard......thirty men Daikyuki - sama? I am not sure we can control that many......"
The commander chuckled. "You listened in, good. A man should always know what his lord commands before he speaks. You and your men will keep control, because I command it. Understand?"
The young man nodded, then looked disturbed. "Do you really intend to give Red Hat a place on your staff Daikyuki - sama?
"Ah what the men call him sir, no one seems to know his name."
"Appropriate enough." The Matsu said, shaking his head in amusement. "But yes, I do. Less one tongue though, we can't have him spreading tales about this embarrassing situation. Now go, you have work to do." The young samurai left quickly.
The second in command poked his head into the tent. "They've gone in Daikyuki - sama. They almost rioted at the entrance.....but Red Hat actually calmed the situation down and got them to go in."
Writing a letter to assure the tax collector that the debt would be paid soon and to thank him for his patience, Daikyuki barely looked up. "I am not surprised."
The young samurai paused before going out again. "Do you think he will really win my lord?"
"Oh yes" The Matsu replied, making another brush stroke on the paper. "Of that I have no doubt, after all, our Red Hat has that talent for survival." Across his desk, the ronin's great sword rested. The young samurai nodded then left.
"He's back Daikyuki - sama."
The Matsu commander looked up from his desk, a single candle burning brightly to light his writing in the darkness, as the ronin entered, flanked by two Lion samurai. The ronin bowed to the Lion commander. "It is done Matsu - sama."
The Lion looked down at his hands and was surprised to find them shaking with relief. Perhaps he was getting old. He stood up carefully. "Very good, go with these men. There is only one last sacrifice you must make before you can rejoin the world of honorable men."
The ronin nodded grimly. "One question, if I may, Matsu - sama?"
Daikyuki watched the ronin carefully. The man began to smile then, the smile from a man who just won a long and difficult shogi game. "Speak." The Lion said bluntly.
"What do you think the monsters were eating?"
"What?" The Lion asked, confused.
The ronin shook his head. "You northern samurai. You think monsters are all magic and kitsune dust, but you don't realize they eat and drink like we do."
Feeling irritated and on the defensive, the Lion commander stroked the hilt of his sword. "What does it matter, this time you've killed them."
"Actually." The ronin said, his victory smile becoming a sly grin. "I killed them the first time down." He was a sudden blur of movement, grabbing his guards about the neck and slamming them together violently. They slumped boneless to the ground.
Baring an inch of steel, the Matsu commander snarled. "Your a fool. I have twenty-five men here and only one of you. You will never escape ronin!"
The ronin in the red hat calmly picked up his sword, checking it for damage before tossing it over his back. The Matsu's righteous anger began to fade away, replace by dread as the sound of men fighting, men screaming, his men began to echo among the camp. The ronin continued to smile.
"You see, what you had there were your average goblins. Nasty brutes, tough in tight quarters, but dumber than spit. easy to kill if you don't let them fool ya." A southern accent crept into his voice. "Ya see, your peasants had been hiding extra rice harvest down in the mine, ta avoid your tax collectors Matsu - sama. Underground stream too, and ya've got enough food and water to feed plenty of monsters....or men."
The Matsu commander’s eye twitched.
"Right now, I've got almost seventy men out there. Now they've been living in a cave for a month, their hungry too because we're almost out of rice. They see in the dark like cats, and your men are a little drunk from celebrating." His grin was sharp, like that of a shark. "Oh, and their very, very angry at you."
The commander closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, his gaze focused and determined. "At the very least ronin, I can assure you do not get away with this."
"You can try." The ronin replied, readying his sword.
Matsu Daikyuki let out an earth-shattering roar, loud enough to stop the heavens. His sword swung free and he charged the ronin in the red hat.
[i]After This Time Tomorrow...[/i]
Leaving the body of the Matsu commander, the ronin left while everyone was still distracted with the fighting. Watching the carnage from afar, he felt a little responsible for all this. Well, more than a little, closer to completely. But he'd had little choice, man works with what tools he has.
The smart ones would do their best to vanish. The rest, well, they'd form up into a bandit gang and terrorize the region until they were rounded up and killed by the Lion. Innocent people would suffer, because the ronin in the red hat had to live. It was his talent after all.
With a sigh, he adjusted his hat and turned east. The ronin wouldn't be welcome in Lion lands for a long time, so he had no choice but to go back. Back was the last place a man with a past ever wanted to go. It was a long walk, so he got started.