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The Honor of a Dog - 2 - Not a rock, I'm just Ruth
All Me, no apologies
just_ruth
just_ruth
The Honor of a Dog - 2
2

The smell of cooking food grew stronger the closer Snake and Sai got to the small village. There was a large fire in the center of the buildings, with a small pig turning on a spit and there were about twenty men around it, clearly drinking and having a good time.

“All right,” Sai strode into the circle. “Party!”

A strong-jawed woman in a grey kimono glared at him. “Who are you?” She was the youngest woman doing the serving. The other five women all had grey hair.

Sai bowed. “Just a pair of humble gamblers, ma’am, we’ve been lost in the woods and followed the so-delicious smell of your pork.”

“Really,” she sounded disgusted. “Well, help yourself.”

“Hoy!” yelled one of the men, “who’s that? Finally decided to bring out the pretty girls for your masters, Ugly Bitch?”

“Hey, look at the big guy with him! He’s bigger than Goraku!”

The large man in question spat into the fire. “I can take him.”

“Sai,” Snake whispered. “I think we should have stayed in the forest.”

“I think you’re right.” Sai pulled out a false grin and rattled his dice cup. “A wandering gambler am I, just a man of rags and tatters. Who’d like to take my money?”

There were whoops of delight. Snake eyed the scowling Goraku. It was going to be a long night, he just knew it.

*********

Sai groaned. His head ached. The first thing he did was feel for his purse. It was gone. So were most of his clothes. Snake whimpered next to him. He was in his fundoshi and his head band. Sai sat up. The twenty men who had invaded Chidori from the sea were in the small stone building, all moaning and making other noises of hangover. They quickly turned to indignant howls and pounding on the door.

“That bitch,” he whispered.

“Pretty damn smart bitch,” Snake whispered back.

Sai had to admit that was true. “So, what do we do now?”

“Get out,” Snake pointed to a small opening for draining the massive tub.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sai took three deep breaths and ducked his head. He squirmed and grunted and pulled himself and shoved, hearing Snake whispering encouragement under the pounding and shouting of the bandits.

He finally pulled himself out and ran around to the door. “Quit pounding! I’ll get everyone out!” he yelled over the noise. He pulled aside the bar that had been wedged into place. The bandits spilled out into the deserted village and let out even louder howls than before.

Their clothes were burning in the fire pit that had cooked their pork.

“Damn smart bitch,” Sai admired. The boat the bandits had come in was drawn up on the beach far enough to show the huge hole that had been knocked in the side.

Snake shivered. “I’m getting cold,” he complained. “What do we do now?”

“Think of some way to get the hell out of here.”

***********

Uchida no Tsume stood frowning as the headman of the Fourth Post Inn complained vehemently about the pair of gamblers that had somehow burned down the Inn. It was late, but he was determined to seek the fugitives. The headman quickly changed his tune to imploring the young man to stay the night. Tsume left orders for a message to be sent back to the capitol with the details of what happened at the Fourth Post Inn. He rode into the darkened forest.

He traveled half the night before he finally conceded that he was lost. He stopped by a small stream to let the horse drink while he tried to get his bearings. He was standing in the stirrups trying to see a path when and owl started from the brush and flew almost into the horse’s face. It reared and bolted. Tsume toppled sideways, but was caught and dragged by the stirrup. He grabbed the strap above the stirrup, managing to pull his foot free just before he crashed into the trunk of a tree. He couldn’t help but yell with pain and faint.

Tsume opened his eyes. He sat up and winced at the pain in his left leg. The horse was nowhere to be seen. He tried to stand and fell back with a strangled curse. His leg was grotesquely swollen from the knee down. “Damn,” he whispered. “Damn, damn, damn.”

A twig snapped. He rolled over and pushed himself up his right knee, leaving his left leg stuck out to the side. “Who’s there?” he demanded. “Who are you?”

There was silence. Tsume grabbed the trunk of the tree and was able to stand on his right leg.
He put one hand on his sword more for comfort than threat. If he had to draw he would probably over balance and fall again.

“It’s all right,” whispered the shadows. “I am not here to harm you, Tsume-sama. I was sent by Master Hisoka to guard you.”

“Then show yourself,” Tsume ordered, then gasped with pain and altered his tone. “Please.”

A slim figure his own height stepped from concealment. He or she was clad head to toe in black, their face covered by a featureless mask that showed only their eyes.

“Who are you?”

“Call me Kuroinu, Tsume-sama.” It was impossible to tell if the soft voice was male or female.

“Don’t call me that, I’m not a Lord,” he felt dizzy and let his hand fall from his sword to support himself against the tree.

“As you wish,” Kuroinu nodded. They came forward and calmly took one of Tsume’s arms around their shoulders. Tsume hissed between his teeth as he was lowered to the forest floor.

“If I may,” Kuroinu’s touch was deft and sure as he examined Tsume’s leg. “I believe the bone is broken. Tsume-san.”

Tsume swallowed a curse. “What do we do now?”

Kuroinu turned his head. “I believe help is on the way.”

A sesame colored Shiba dog came through the brush. He barked in surprise. He circled, but would not come closer no matter how Kuroinu or Tsume coaxed.

“Here,” Tsume finally took off one of his armlets and threw it to the dog. “Take this!”

The dog caught up the piece of embossed leather and ran off.

“Here’s hoping he does not chew it up,” Tsume sighed.

“He is an honorable dog. I think he will bring it to his master, or mistress as the case maybe.”

“Mistress? Wait, my brother lost a dog here two years ago. . .”

“Just so, Tsume-san. Just so.”

*********

Sakanan Sumiko was most displeased. Her husband, after all, was the headman of Turtle Rock She had proved her worth by giving birth to two sturdy sons, now out with their father in the fleet and a daughter. She wore a bright red sash on her kimono that had come from the capitol itself as a present from her husband at the last tax gathering. By rights, the families of the small fishing village should turn to her for advice and leadership, but where did they go when there was a crisis? Straight to her sister-in-law!

What infuriated her even more was that if she protested, Sawa Tomomi would simply turn and ask her what she thought they should do. Since Sumiko had no idea, she ended up looking like a fool.

She granted that Tomomi was pleasant enough. She was not pretty and not very accomplished except for cooking which is why, when she was too old for any man of the village to be expected to marry her, she was given the scandalous task of tending to the riders who passed through the Fifth-Post Inn. The riders were all rough young men passing through with this or that message between the nobles and the capitol. They quite unexpectedly treated her respectfully and she teased, scolded and worried over them like they were her younger brothers or sons.

What Sumiko found even more outrageous was the strange man who washed up after a terrible storm seventeen years ago. Not only did Tomomi nurse the unnaturally pale skinned, light-eyed Sawa Jo back to health; she married him and worse, had a daughter at the same time Sumiko had given birth to her own! It was simply dreadful, but she seemed to be the only one in the entire village who thought so.

This morning was exceptionally annoying. Bad enough there had been smoke seen rising from Chidori village in the dawn, but not long afterward, Goma-chan’s barking announced the arrival of about thirty women and children, looking for sanctuary. Chidori had been invaded by about twenty bandits. Sumiko found the woman mayor, Inaka Kane, as scandalous as Tomomi. She had spent all night plying the bandits with food and barrels of rice beer, then had persuaded or dragged all of the drunken men into the village bath house, the only stone structure Chidori had, and locked them in while the women and children fled.

“It’s out of the question,” Sumiko cried. “They can’t stay in the village.”

“You’re right, sister-in-law,” Tomomi nodded, rocking one of Chidori’s infants in her arms while the child’s mother drank a cup of tea and ate a bowlful of rice that the villagers had offered in hospitality. “They shall come and stay in the Inn. The late lord built this Inn so he could station troops here if he had to. There is plenty of room.”

“Better get everyone here in the Inn too,” advised Kane. “Because once they get themselves out of that bath house, those bandits are apt to come looking for us and bring trouble with them.”

“The Fifth Post Inn is certainly large enough,” Tomomi mused.

“Out of the question!” cried Sumiko. “We need to send to Lord Uchida, it is _his_ business to fight these bandits.”

“What do they want?” wondered Ino.

“They think they’re some invading force from Sebone,” Kane snorted. “Mostly younger noblemen’s sons who’ve had their heads filled with some sort of nonsense stories. They’re going to conquer Hidarashi, Tatsunokuchi, Migikibara, I and Shipporyuu and become Emperors - feh!”

“I could have fought them if you let me,” sulked Kane’s son, Kenichi. He was sixteen and had not gone with the fishing fleet because of a broken arm.

“No, you couldn’t, so don’t talk foolish,” Kane retorted.

“We need to send to the Lord,” Sumiko repeated, getting frustrated.

“Yes, of course,” said Tomomi. “At the very least, we shall send to the Sixth Post Inn. Natsuko, you will go on one horse, you’re pregnant. We need a another rider to go with you.”

“I will,” cried Amaya, Tomomi’s daughter. She looked much the same as the other girls of the village, except her eyes were a mix of grey and blue that proclaimed her father’s foreign blood.

“No, dear,” Tomomi shook her head. “You are a good rider, that’s true, but you’re much better at archery and we might need your skills.”

“I can do it, aunt.” Sumiko was shocked when her daughter stepped forward.

“Tamae! What are you doing?” Sumiko shrieked. “When did you learn how to ride?”

“I was with Amaya. . .” Tamae backed away from her mother.

“I forbid this!”

“Very well,” said Tomomi calmly. “Mai?”

“Yes, ma’am!” said one of the orphans who helped at the Inn. She caught Natsuko’s hand and they ran off.

“Mo-om!” wailed Kenichi.

“You can’t ride a horse,” Kane snapped.

“I can’t do _anything_ and it’s not fair!”

“Everyone!” Tomomi called. “Bring all the rice you can carry. All the dried meat, pickled vegetables, the winter daikon, all the blankets and sleeping mats you have - if the bandits come, they will find nothing but empty houses. And if the Lord’s soldiers come, “ she raised her voice over Sumiko’s beginning protests. “We will be able to feed them whatever they wish.”

The women moved quickly. Within three hours, the village was emptied and the small gate in the stone palisade that surrounded the Inn closed and blocked with the hand carts used during the harvest. Inside the Inn, it was chaotic for much longer. The Inn had two huge common rooms, a central kitchen and a small apartment behind the kitchen for the staff. There were smaller rooms on the second level for guests of more importance. Sumiko demanded one of those. There were more rooms next to and above the stables.

Still, by the afternoon, everyone was more or less settled. Tomomi took Goma-chan for a walk along the stone fence to have a little quiet. One horse was left in the paddock connected to the stables. It was a brown and white mare named Freckles. Tomomi was not surprised. Freckles had been left behind months ago because she was bad-tempered and had a habit of biting.

“Anyone who steals her will deserve what they get, neh, Goma-chan?” she smiled at the dog.

Goma-chan grinned at her and scooted off. Freckles snorted and ran beside him for the length of the corral. For a moment, Tomomi worried if she should have put on the armored coat that the dog had worn when he’d come into her life. The little coat of plaques probably saved his life from the wild pig in the forested hills - at least it had kept the pig from ripping his belly, even if it had wounded his right hind leg. It was made like samurai armor so it might protect against an arrow. Really, Goma-chan was not that much bigger than he had been two years ago, if she lengthened the straps . . .

She came back by the stable to see Amaya, Mai’s twin sister Kai and Tamae practicing their archery while young Kenichi watched. She suspected Sumiko would not like to see her daughter’s skill. Tamae had very few girls her own age to play with and Tomomi would not shoo her away. Sumiko had never liked much of anything Tomomi had done. She waved at the girls.

Inaka Kane waved to her and Tomomi waited until she caught up. She was a little taller than Tomomi with a strong jaw.

“Are you comfortable?” Tomomi asked.

“Just fine,” said Kane. “We’ve got a pot of stock boiling and have started rice flour dumplings. That sister-in-law of yours is a bitch and a half.”

“Ah,” said Tomomi, “no doubt she was telling you what a disgrace I am and how I’ve brought such dishonor to our family name by marrying a foreigner.”

“She tried to,” Kane scoffed. “Is this foreigner of yours a good man?”

“Oh, yes,” Tomomi smiled. “Jo is kind and he’s very clever. He was a farrier before he was forced by his lord to sail on a ship, so you can imagine how valuable he’s been to the post riders. He has very dark hair, but his eyes are blue and grey - more blue than grey actually and. . . am I boring you?”

“No,” Kane was leaning against the rock wall. “I was watching how you came to life talking about him. That tells me he _is_ a good man and very good for you.”

Tomomi looked away. “I suppose I am lucky, but tell me about you?”

“Not so much to tell,” Kane shrugged. “I’m in charge of Chidori because the tax collector could read my hand writing. Kenichi’s father passed through on his way to better things - or so he said.”

“It cannot be easy raising a boy by yourself.”

“It has it’s moments. He broke his arm falling off the roof of the bathhouse. He climbed up there just to prove he could. He’s been whining because I didn’t let him go with the fleet.”

“He couldn’t work the nets with one arm,” Tomomi commented.

“I know,” she sighed. “I should have let him go anyway, but they would have probably drowned him by now. What’s this?”

Goma-chan came running with something in his mouth. “Well,” laughed Tomomi, “and what did you bring me today?” She knelt down. “Give!”

Goma-chan placed an armlet in her hand.

“That’s the Uchida crest!” exclaimed Kane.

“Where did you get this?” Tomomi asked Goma-chan, “show me!”

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