By Levi Lahr
Historical Fiction/ What if?
Mist adorned the peaks of the mountains like a glittering crown—obscuring the predawn sky like a great white veil. The sun’s golden glory peeked from between the mountain’s near vertical slopes alighting the ground with benevolent warmth. Droplets of morning dew clung to the fine mountain grass—catching the rays and resonating a thousand diamond glow. Stray beams of light penetrated the mountain wood and tickled the tips of leaves shimmering with brilliant hues of transparent greens. The leaves rustled in the wind — singing a soft aria to the deep shadows of the forest floor. There, in the darkness pungent with the smell of pine needles and wild flowers, the mountains came to life. A hundred songbird ballad cascaded into the valley like an avalanche—its delightful pitch becoming louder and brighter in growing fervency.
A lone figure reclined in the mountain grass. His shitagi and trousers wet from the dew. His hair kissed with mist lay close to his head damp and unruly. He lay still as a grave save the rise and fall of his chest. He inhaled deeply, held the oxygen in his lungs till it burned—then he’d exhale slowly with a sigh.
“Rikichi!” cried out a well built man with a solid box-like figure. His hair pulled back in the chasen gami style and had a thick mustache that flared out above his rounded lips and came down to either side of his chin. A thick eyebrow ran across his forehead and dark methodic brown eyes peered out from underneath. The nose was wide down the length of his face but tapered to a fine point right above the lips. He had a weak jaw though and hunched over a bit when he ran. Identical to the other man’s attire, this one wore blue trousers with a white shitagi and katana in hand. He stopped abruptly and began to speak, his voice strained and face beat red from running. “Where have…you been I...I looked for…you all…all morning but…couldn’t …find you and began…to worry! Been calling out your…name all morning and…running all over these damn mou…mountains searching for…you!”
The reclining ashigaru stood up slowly, grabbing his sword as he rose and tucked it in his belt. “I was a farm boy once Gorobei.” He bent over and grabbed a handful of dirt and underbrush letting it sift through his fingers until only sticks and leaves and small withered plant roots were left. “Always had to wake up at the crack of dawn,” He laughed “The habit has stuck.”
He (that is Rikichi) did not look like a farm boy at all. In fact he was noble in stride and stature. And while all the ashigaru took great care for the way their hair was arranged Rikichi’s put theirs to shame. His was thick black hair that shone like polished obsidian. Plain yet soft deep-set hazel eyes that bore into the soul. A strong neck was set upon broad shoulders that branched out into powerful arms that lead into hands that were calloused, rough yet articulated, skilled. His chest stuck out, rounded and powerful. A firm abdomen and firm legs honed by many hundreds of miles with small agile feet and monkey toes. His appearance was identical to that of the Mori clan’s leader, Motonari which led to his nickname of “Little Motonari.”
“You always rise before Ametarasu? Sucks for you! Personally I can’t see how you do it but whatever. It’s your head when you’re too exhausted to fight!”
Rikichi chuckled, “Are you done yet?”
“You owe me rice for this morning!” Gorobei gleamed, “For making me run my fat ass off worried about you ya know!”
The two made their way deep into the mist veiled wood by way of a crude trail. They talked energetically as their feet carried them deeper and deeper in, leaving footprints depressed in the moist dirt. Soon they were making way up the near horizontal slope of the mountain. Leaves crunched beneath their feet casting small creatures into the underbrush to hide. Sporadic yawns from Gorobei marked the conclusion to their jesting and both fell silent. After a time they finally came to a clearing in the forest. A glade with many tents and banners and men wearing okegawa-do and tosei gusoku, all bearing the Mori clan’s mon.
The glade was extremely large, extending a distance of approximately two-hundred feet from the center in either direction. There were twenty-three distinguished bushi with the army who wore the tosei gusoku. Their tents encompassed the clan lord’s tent Motonari like castle walls. Forty-nine ashigaru made up the remainder of the army. These wore the okegawa-do, brazen with the great black and gold Mori mon across their iron-plated chest. Here the air was filled with the strong scents of body odor and horse manure yet it was bearable for wild flowers, mountain pines and cooked rice sweetened the air.
Rikichi and Gorobei snaked their way through the camp to a modest tent of humble proportions. Before they could enter though, a messenger came around. “Mount your armor and don’t bother to pack, we’re moving out immediately.” And just as abruptly as he’d come he left.
“Damn!” hollered Gorobei, “Just when we were going to eat! Damn!”
The two grabbed the plated do of the ashigaru and began putting it on. First Rikichi pulled his tabi over his feet then slipped his waraji on, tying an extra cord across the instep in preparation for the long march ahead of them. Next Rikichi tied the vertical plated suneate across his shins and pulled the tanned yugake over his forearms. Securing the plated kote to his torso he slipped into the okegawa-do, Gorobei securing it with knots in the back. Rikichi slung his cloth-ration bags across his back and fitted the jingasa to his head. Tucking his katana and tonto into the belt, and grabbing the mochi yari he and Gorobei caught up with the seventy-man army.
The army followed Motonari in a great mob, weaving their way through the mountan woods. No one spoke and soon Rikichi’s mind slipped into the past. His head swam with thoughts of home, the harvest and festive spring melodies. Subliminal mountains that eternally slept behind the village and great forests and then of the bandits.
The bandits who charged down those mountains on horseback, the horse’s hooves beating the ground with such force it had seemed as though the mountain would be torn asunder. The bandits who curtailed man woman and child alike with clumsy blows from horseback that left countless corpses with masticated heads. The bandits who took the young women for their own lustful desires. The bandits who plundered the houses for valuables before setting them ablaze, leaving a single child of fifteen lying in the mud, scarcely alive. Leaving him to wander roads for three years as a thief before becoming an ashigaru in Motonari’s army.
The procession ceased in hilly country with long grass that mimicked the movement of the ocean’s waves in the wind. Rikichi noticed where he was for the first time and stood there breathless in shock. For just a few hundred feet away stood the army of Takeda stood, poised for combat. The Mori screamed and both armies charged at full speed. Motonari and his cavalry slammed into the opposing forces trampling ashigaru beneath them before rounding a steep hill and disappearing from sight, Takeda and his cavalry in pursuit. The ashigaru on both sides finally crashed into one another starting close-range-combat. Rikichi was knocked over and fell face first, his teeth sinking into the earth. He got back up and broke-away from the fight, making his way towards the hill his lord disappeared behind.
Rikichi reached the hill to find that only one samurai still survived, Motonari. He was locked in single-combat with Takeda. A dozen enemy bushi stood in a loose ring around them and watched in awe as did Rikichi at how alert a fencer the young Mori lord was for being so young. They fought like kami and Motonari beat his enemy to the ground. Just when it seemed as though he was going to deliver the deathblow, Takeda struck out desperately with such force that it sliced the young lord’s katana in two, from haman to mune, continuing just to cut through Motonari’s right abiki-no-o and straight through the yodare-kake. His clavicle and jugular cut straight through, a splirt of blood was projected and splattered onto Takeda’s muna-ita and mempo. Motonari’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and with shuddered moan fell forward and landed on his killer.
Tears trickled down Rikichi’s cheeks and rolled off his chin, a knot formed in his throat so hard that it hurt when he tried to swallow and without a thought the nameless ashigaru charged down that hill towards his hero’s murderers. The men were so absorbed in the great victory that they failed to notice the pitter patter of an enraged bushi drawing close. Rikichi’s arm drew back and let loose his mochi yari that sang as a stringed instrument as it flew in the air before driving into the chest of an enemy samurai. Takeda tuned to parry the blow of Rikichi’s katana but was too late, for he was already cut through from yodare-kake and shikoro. His head rolled off his shoulders and his body collapsed to the ground. Rikichi was instantly surrounded and so drew a fallen wakizashi and struck-out at the ring of enemies, striking outward with both swords. The samurai were herded into a clump constantly moving out of the range of Rikichi’s blows. One poor fool came in too-close and was eviscerated, cut from chin to groin, his ita affording no shield from the blow. Another of Takeda’s samurai struck-out at Rikichi seeing an opening but was caught by the wakizashi and cut deep into the right of his groin. Another bushi advanced upon the lone ashigaru from behind and came down with such force that it knocked the katana out from Rikichi’s right hand and knocked him to the ground. Several bushi converged upon the toppled man hoping to take his head. Rikichi squirmed under their blows receiving several cuts to the chest before successfully parrying five slashes. The sixth taking his middle finger, screaming in anguish and gasping for breath he became even more frenzied in his endeavor to escape. Kicking-in the kneecap of one of his assailants afforded him the time needed to raise to his feet. Once up he cut low another man with a slash to the forehead that bounced back and crushed the man’s skull. He grabbed another samurai and drove his wakizashi through the man’s unprotected armpit taking the bushi’s katana and swung at the head of another, his blade struck the warrior’s fukigaeshi though and became lodged there. The samurai advanced and cut deep into Rikichi’s arm four times before being tackled by the lone bushi who lifted up the skirt of the man’s armor and stabbed him so deep that fist and hilt followed. Rikichi fell upon another bushi and was about to take his head when he was grabbed by the back of his mon exposing his neck. The enemy’s tonto came in close proximity of Rikichi’s neck. Jamming his tonto into the neck of his attacker Rikichi simultaneously flung him over his shoulders And quickly dispatched the last of the samurai with a slash to the face.
Exhaustion took its toll and Rikichi collapsed. He looked up and his gaze slowly turned to the corpse of his fallen lord. ”Little Motonari…little…Motonari.” He whispered. ”No…I am.” With that he stood and striped the armor of his lord and donned it himself. Once finished he took the head of Takedo and made his way to the other battlefield.
Rikichi rounded the hill and saw the men carting-off the dead, tending to the wounded. He stood there for some time time before the men noticed his presence in that mid-day light. All activity ceased and every head turned to look at him. Rikichi raised the head of Takedo high into the air and the men erupted into shouts of praise. They called out his name in a barking chant, “Motonari! Motonar! Motonari!”