As among flowers the cherry is Queen,
so among men the samurai is Lord.
-- Japanese Folk Song
royal palanquin was a wreck of splinters on the
blood-splattered snow. Sugawara counted fifteen dead,
including the female occupant of the palanquin, her body
tumbled in a lifeless heap on the icy road.
examined the carnage, light snow collecting on his wide
shoulders. The procession had been attacked by a fierce
enemy. Animal-like in its ferocity, it wasn't satisfied with
merely killing its victims. Instead, they were mutilated
Thundering hoofs made him grasp his sword hilt. His armor
was chain and bamboo cuirass, but the dead guards were
similarly clad and their armor hadn't protected them.
black horses, heavily lathered, steam roiling from their
nostrils, reigned to a halt in the middle of the road. One
of the riders carried a lantern bearing the official
insignia of a police inspector. The riders cautiously
surrounded Sugawara, their spears lowered.
ronin," a hard-faced man with the helmet and badge of a
feudal inspector, a metsuke, snapped. "What are you doing on
traveling alone. I came upon these bodies only minutes
before you arrived."
inspector frowned. "Already dead?"
Even the woman."
inspector leaned over his pommel, eyes like flint as he
sized up Sugawara. "Perhaps, ronin, you killed them?"
Sugawara smiled grimly. "I have killed many men in my life,
inspector, but I do not mutilate them. These victims all
lost their faces, cut deep beneath the muscle. To accomplish
such a feat would I not be covered from head to toe in their
other man sniffed. "Not if you washed yourself off in a snow
drift before I arrived." He ordered two of his officers to
dismount and inspect the bodies while he continued to
"Where is your pass to travel through our fief?"
Sugawara shrugged. "I didn't know one was needed. I entered
by way of a valley to the west before I struck this remote
mountain trail. I saw no border forts before entering this
inspector grunted. "Ignorance of our law is no excuse, ronin.
Strange. I find fifteen dead and a ronin without a road pass
standing hard by." His eyes narrowed. "I think perhaps you
killed these people, masterless samurai, and now scheme to
save your own miserable hide."
"Think as you like, inspector. Of course, I could say the
same about you mysteriously turning up out of the snow fog."
"Explain yourself," the inspector demanded.
face," Sugawara said simply. "When you saw these dead bodies
you were not surprised."
inspector's man approached, face pale. "Everyone dead, their
faces ripped. It's not bandits, sir. Gold coins are spilled
into the snow from the lady's baggage, only her road pass is
missing. No footprints lead in or out." The man swallowed
painfully. "It's as if they fought the wind.”
smashed a fist onto the pommel of his saddle. "By the blood
of Buddha, what manner of inhuman beast are we fighting?"
Sugawara said, "I take it you've encountered this spoor
examined Sugawara from beneath bushy brows as if he were
seeing him in a new light. "Indeed we have, ronin. Ever
since this winter set in and the wolves came down from the
mountain forests looking for game. Yet they came differently
than ever before, running as if for their lives."
first lieutenant added, "As if someone – or something --
chased them from their lairs." The other officers nodded.
straightened in his saddle. "That doesn't explain your
presence, ronin, or the circumstance in which I found you.
Your alibi is too thin. You have much explaining to do."
Sugawara gripped his sword. "I will not go manacled or under
don't think that will be necessary," Kura agreed. He called
to his lieutenant: "Let the ronin double up with you. We
must return and report this disaster."
Sugawara climbed behind the rider. Kura wheeled his mount
around and started off at a brisk pace. Sugawara asked him,
"Inspector, that Lady appeared to be someone of wealth,
perhaps even royalty. Who was she?"
Kura's face was impassive. "Lady Hiroko. She is...was the
second cousin to the shogun's commissioner of finances. She
was supposed to marry the daimyo in the next fief and was
passing through our lands." Kura gave a weary sigh. "Now,
the eyes of the shogunate will turn to our pathetic little
fief and demand answers I do not have." His eyes hardened.
"However, do not concern yourself with my problems, ronin."
rode on. The inspector studied Sugawara from the corner of
his eye as they entered a ramshackle village clinging to the
steep side of a wooded mountain.
you see," Kura pointed, "we are desperately poor. There is
little arable land. Winters are hard. However, my family has
held the position of metsuke here for many generations." He
dismounted outside a dilapidated building. "I must not
further disappoint my ancestors by failing in the duty
bestowed upon me." He lowered his voice. "Inside, ronin,
where we can talk freely."
brought Sugawara into a room with polished floors and frayed
tatami mats. A yellow, guttering candle was the only
available light source. Kura sat cross-legged behind a low
table. Sugawara followed suit.
Sugawara watched Kura deputize a party of villagers to
retrieve the bodies from the road. He then made preparations
to inform the government currently residing in Kyoto of the
tragedy, taking full responsibility. Finally, when the
necessary paperwork and bureaucratic maneuvers were
complete, a male secretary served sake and, bowing, let
Sugawara drank the warm sake. The sun had lowered in the
west, slanting shadows across the low desk between them.
set his empty bowl down with a steady hand. "Well, there can
be but one outcome." He smiled faintly. "As samurai I must
atone for my failure to my Lord." Without warning he banged
a fist on the table. "But by all the hells of Buddha, I'm
furious that I can't find a solution to the problem plaguing
my district before I forfeit my life."
Sugawara said into his sake bowl, "I think, Inspector Kura,
that you have found such a solution."
blinked. He poured more sake for Sugawara. "You see much,
ronin. Yes, it's why I allowed you to watch me go through
the official motions. I have nothing to hide. If we are to
do business, as I think we must, surely this is the better
way? Everything out in the open."
no longer under suspicion?"
grimaced. "I begged Lady Hiroko to wait, or better yet go
along the main road, east of the mountain range. She would
hear none of it. We were on a direct path to her future
husband. The quickest way was that lonely mountain trail."
Kura spread his hands apart. "What else could I do? No one
would believe our story."
Sugawara put his sake down. "What story, inspector?"
said low, "The cedar forests above this village are haunted
by a clever demon-witch. She always kills when the weather
turns cold. This year she began taking faces. At first we
thought it was bandits. I sent five good men up there last
month to flush them out; they never returned. That's when I
instituted the enactment of road passes, more to absolve
myself of blame than anything else. I've hidden the truth
for years from Kyoto. The death of the commissioner's cousin
will bring everything out into the open when my messenger
arrives there four days hence."
Kura's voice dropped lower. "However, before I commit
seppuku to atone for my failure, I must try one last gamble
to erase this demon-witch from my fief." He rocked back on
his heels. "To do that, I need the help of a famous sword,
and the warrior who wields it."
Sugawara had noticed Kura's sidelong stares on the road. He
drew his katana and laid it on the table. Flickering light
fell on the gleaming, naked blade with its blood groove, and
the chrysanthemums carved into the hilt itself shaped like
an angry Black Dragon.
true!" Kura's face came alive with wonder. "The sword
'Falling Flowers', fashioned by Master Ohta centuries ago.
Only one man carries it, a ronin with a price of gold on his
head. Even in this secluded district your name is known,
men have enemies," Sugawara said. "A friend is more rare."
nodded sagely. "As I hoped. We are two of a kind. We are
samurai, but I fight with paper and pen and law books; my
sword arm is not strong. I need a man of your mettle. I'll
overlook the fact you are a wanted criminal. To be honest, I
think only a desperate soldier, one who lives day by day
with blood lust, can battle the demon-witch and survive.
Simply put, I want her head on a spike before I am forced to
Sugawara cupped his chin in his hand, thinking. "I have sold
my sword before," he said. "However, I am set upon my own
quest to avenge the deaths of my Clan from a traitor, he who
was once my father's vassal. I don't know if I have time for
held up his palm. "I am familiar with your story. Your
family's crest, a cherry blossom clutched in an eagle's
talons, is banned. You are gathering money to build an army
so your crest might one day fly again. Of money I have
little: fifty gold pieces from the official treasury.
However, I can give you something else: Paper armor that
will make you invulnerable."
Sugawara was intrigued. "Please explain."
letter of transit bearing the shogun's crest, signed by a
metsuke in his employ. It allows the bearer to travel the
width and breadth of Japan for one calendar year. Such a
device, in the hands of a man seeking vengeance, could well
nigh be invaluable. Do we have a deal?"
Sugawara slipped his sword back into its saya. "Agreed. What
must I do?"
"Bring me the head of the demon-witch so I can look upon it
with pleasure as I disembowel myself."
"Where might I find this demon?"
retrieved a map of the countryside and rolled it out. He
stabbed a finger at the paper. "She lives here in the
mountains, deep within an icy ravine where once stood an old
mill. Few men have glimpsed her and lived. They say she
flies through the trees and makes fire with her open palms.
Her laughter is like crows tearing at the flesh of the
sounds a formidable enemy indeed."
one who has gone into the mountains to kill her has ever
returned," Kura warned. "But, if you are successful, I
humbly request you honor me further by acting as my second."
Sugawara stood, casting a large shadow from the wavering
candle. He clapped his hand onto his sword hilt. "If I do
not return within three days, Kura, consider me lost."
will give you a horse and rations."
Sugawara shook his head. "No horse. This will be a stalking
game. I must move silently through the forest to catch this
supernatural creature. I must fight on her terms or lose."
looked out the slatted window.
can make several ri before the sun sets. I want to be deep
inside the forest, learn its rhythms so I can use them to my
advantage. As Sun Tzu dictates: 'Use the land to defeat your
nodded his understanding. "Yes, but after four days my
messenger arrives in Kyoto and I must commit seppuku. If,
however, you return with her head I can send a carrier
pigeon to Kyoto bearing the news we've destroyed the
demon-witch. Then I will commit seppuku."
Sugawara bowed deeply and left the inspector's office.
Sugawara moved up the flank of the mountain. The night was
cold. Moonlight fell between branches laden with snow.
Around midnight the sound of howling wolves, their voices
echoing, arose in the distance.
came upon a clearing, paused. His eyes ranged over the
snow-covered ground. If the map was correct, the icy ravine
began on the other side, leading up in a zig-zag toward the
summit of this mountain.
his bow in hand he went out into the open, senses alert. The
wolves stopped their music; the forest was deathly quiet.
Movement along the wood's edge caught his eye and he dropped
to one knee, an arrow knocked.
pale shapes moved quietly between the boles of the trees.
One turned to look at Sugawara, continued to trot onward.
Sugawara smiled grimly to himself. The wolves hadn't wasted
anytime getting themselves downwind of his scent. It only
remained to be seen how desperate they were, what kind of
toll starvation had taken upon their natural wary instincts.
Sugawara had hoped to at least reach the ravine before the
wolves found his scent, hoping their fear of the demon-witch
would then keep them away.
hope was a foregone conclusion as the pack -- forty strong
-- shuffled into the clearing. They were starved past the
point of emaciation. Their coats were dull and their
ribcages and hips clearly defined beneath the loose skin.
Red tongues lolled from their mouths; their eyes blazed in
Sugawara moved toward the ravine. The pack edged forward,
keeping their distance. He saw boulders up ahead, possibly
the mouth of the icy ravine where the demon-witch lived. He
judged the distance. The pack came nearer, the animals
slipping around each other like streams of grey smoke over
Sugawara fired an arrow into their midst and they broke,
yelping. They quickly reformed. Meat lay ahead, perhaps the
first in weeks, and nothing would deter them from their
arrows whizzed through the cold air, their slim shadows
racing over the broken snow. Two found the throat of a lone
wolf at the edge of the pack, killing him instantly, the
third caught a female in her hindquarters. The pack,
growling and snarling at the smell of blood, fell upon their
wounded companion, fangs tearing into her exposed belly.
Sugawara ran, his breath sawing in his lungs, for the
relative safety of the boulders ahead.
leaped wildly and found a handhold, scrabbling for a better
purchase. He stood on the cold, naked rock, heart pounding.
pack had become a vicious tangle of snapping jaws and bloody
fur. Sugawara watched them feed. The wolves sniffed the snow
back and forth until they found his scent again.
much do you fear the demon-witch over your desire for fresh
meat?" he asked them. A wolf paused to howl at the sliver of
Sugawara glanced at the dark tumble of ice and boulders in
the ravine, back down at the wolf pack slowly approaching.
Turning, he jumped from boulder to boulder, making sure he
stayed in sight of the pack. He climbed down the side of the
ravine. There was a lot of ice here and the going was more
difficult. He knew he had bought himself time: the wolves
would have to find an easier way through the maze of
boulders. Toward dawn he thought it safe enough to sleep in
the lee of a fallen cedar, and this he did, sword drawn.
he awoke he ate part of his rations and moved up through the
steep ravine. Twice he had to climb, but he made sure there
were detours nearby for the wolves to follow.
Toward noon he came upon the frozen, impaled bodies of
Kura's men. Five men, only their torsos remaining, were
planted on sharpened cedar stakes. Their legs and their arms
were gone -- ripped free by wolves. What remained was set
too high for the animals to reach, but served as a warning
sign to whoever was foolish, or lucky enough, to reach this
Sugawara pressed on. The ravine emptied into a dry river bed
that tracked half a mile deep along the side of the
mountain. The trees and foliage were thick and he had to
sidle between the trunks to make any progress.
emerged from the dark forest and entered an area where the
trees were spaced farther apart. Tired and thirsty, he
scooped a handful of snow, melted it in his mouth, and
flung the remaining snow onto the ground, the tops of the
trees came alive. Three figures dressed in bark and cedar
camouflage armor leaped down, a net spread between them.
Sugawara's sword flashed, slicing the net as it unfolded
over his head. He whirled, cutting an upward stroke at the
nearest opponent. The woodman stumbled away with a hideous
scream. Two woodmen attacked from either side. Sugawara
quickly stepped behind one, using him as a momentary shield.
His sword rang as he cut both men down.
more jumped from the trees, swords glinting in the cold
noonday sun. Sugawara met them face on. One woodman spun
away, blood spraying from an open artery. The last two
crouched, reached into pouches and flung razor-sharp discs
at Sugawara. He dodged and rolled, came up on his feet.
Sword singing, he decapitated the first man and critically
wounded the second.
looked at the dead and dying around him. One man was trying
to crawl away, his black tabi boots digging into the frozen
earth to find purchase. Sugawara kicked him over onto his
back, stripped the camouflaged face mask away. He pressed
the point of his sword into the ninja's neck.
"Where is your leader? Speak, or I'll kill you like the
diseased reptile you are."
dying ninja grinned through blood-stained teeth. "You're too
late, samurai. Our Mistress is already on her way with her
do you mean? Speak, dog."
"Bestowed upon her by the deceased Elders of an ancient
Clan." The ninja then swallowed hard. Sugawara tried to pry
open the man's mouth to free his swallowed tongue. The ninja
shuddered and died at Sugawara's feet.
Sugawara straightened. He whipped the blood from his sword
and slowly resheathed it, thoughts racing.
stripped the bodies and pulled them to a ledge that looked
out over the ravine. After throwing the bodies down, and
watching them smash through the branches into an
inaccessible gorge below, he turned to explore the dry river
bed. It led him to an abandoned water mill and the overgrown
foundations of deserted village houses.
thought it likely this was once a thriving mountain
community until the water source, for whatever reason, had
dried up. He inspected the inside of the rundown mill house
and found weapons, sleeping pallets, a fire pit and food.
Everything needed for a secret camp to survive the severe
winter. He even found extremely wide snowshoes made of pine
straw which would enable someone to walk across fresh snow
and leave little trace.
Sugawara discovered several clay jars hidden under a
blanket. Most were empty, but five sloshed when he shook
them. He poured the contents of one out. Something wet and
hairy plopped at his feet. Using a bamboo pole he stretched
it out on the ground.
face looked up at him. Sugawara searched further. A corner
of the mill was set aside for a woman: a wooden chest with
fine silk, makeup, hairpins, a jade comb. Included were
detailed drawings of a woman's face, hair and modes of
dress, even her daily habits.
Written on the back were the words: Lady Hiroko.
was a tiny shrine, folded paper rectangles with writing in
gold ink on them tied all around. In the center of the
shrine lay a mirror inlaid with ivory, the word "Hiroko"
written in blood across its face. Sugawara touched one of
the paper rectangles; it crumbled to dust.
magic from this has already been drawn out, he mused.
Sugawara got to his feet. He backed out of the mill and
started down the slope of the mountain, hurrying in the
direction of the icy mountain road far below. He tried to
recall the lay of the land as he had crossed into Kura's
fief from the western border, remembering that the mountain
road made a great sweeping curve through the foothills
before entering the next province. He knew he might be able
to get ahead of the procession if they were using a
palanquin for the "new" Lady Hiroko.
last was a certainty. These ninja had gone to extraordinary
lengths to infiltrate the province next door to Kura's, even
to the point of setting up a myth about a demon-witch to
dissuade the curious. Posing as Lady Hiroko and her
entourage, they could cross the border and assassinate the
daimyo himself, if such was their target. Or they might be
on a mission to gather intelligence of the fief's defenses
as a prelude to invasion by another enemy.
Whatever the reason, Sugawara knew he had to hurry. First,
though, one last detail.
returned to where he had battled the camouflaged ninja and
scooped handfuls of bloody snow into clay jars taken from
the mill. Then he ran far enough down into the ravine, the
wind at his back, and smashed a jar against an ice-incrusted
set a quick pace, striking off into the forest as the howls
of the wolves increased behind him. He occasionally poured
the bloody slush of a jar onto a tree, or down a steep
incline so the pack could keep the scent.
yipping and howls of hunger behind him increased. Sugawara
was running flat out. He judged they were ten minutes or
less behind him. He stopped long enough to scan the forest.
blood froze as he saw a great mass of grey fur stalking
silently through the woods, eyes gleaming.
wolf pack knew they had him. He had moved away from the lair
of the demon-witch and down into the foothills. There would
be no escape. The came on silently, hungrily.
Sugawara burst out of the woods onto the road. The
procession had to have moved down the wooded flanks of the
mountain; he had not met them in the ravine. If so, he
should see them soon. He examined the pristine roadway. No
tracks. He was ahead of them.
had three jars of blood left. He marched down the roadside,
keeping as much distance as possible from the wolf pack on
the other side.
Sugawara heard the sound of the procession coming fast: a
cadence was being called as the retainers quick-marched to
stood alone in the middle of the roadway. The procession,
fifteen strong, stopped.
of the way, ronin!" one of the guards shouted. "We're on
important business with the daimyo in the next province."
Sugawara smiled and loosened his sword. "I've been waiting
for you, and the demon-witch inside that palanquin. While I
waited I composed your death poem."
lead guard stepped back. "You're insane, ronin. Stand aside!
We have no patience for poems."
drive my enemies before me
Like leaves before a typhoon.
I, and my army,
Are their Death Storm."
Incredulous looks crossed the faces of the guards. The
leader laughed, "What army? You're alone, and you'll die
alone." He whipped his sword out and rushed headlong with
the other men.
Sugawara smashed the three remaining jars in their midst,
pleased to see that one spilled most of its contents onto
the palanquin. He crossed swords with the first man to reach
him, and felled him quickly. Another man came for him but
turned as shrieks of terror arose from the remaining guards.
Wolves were launching themselves from the embankment,
tearing out the throats of their victims. They swarmed over
the snow, driving men backwards. Sugawara scrambled away
from the carnage. The wolves had been following a particular
blood spoor for most of the afternoon and were honing in on
that, oblivious to everything else. Sometimes, as men fell,
their face masks came loose, revealing terrified features.
bearers dropped the palanquin and ran for their lives. A
woman inside screamed as the wolves hit the front of the
palanquin smeared with blood. She crawled out the side on
hands and knees, her beautiful face white with terror. A
wolf jumped on top of the palanquin, spotted his prey, and
landed on her back, bringing her down. Her face and wig came
off in the bloody snow, revealing the frightened profile of
an old, grey-haired woman.
Sugawara stepped in front of her, sword raised. She looked
up at him with pleading eyes.
real Lady Hiroko welcomes you to your Death Storm," he said.
The ninja woman screamed. Sugawara's sword flashed. He
grabbed her head.
of the ninjas abandoned all pretense of their disguises and
floundered in a deep snowbank, intent on escape. Wolves
brought them down, slashing fangs into throats and bellies.
Sugawara grabbed a pike and tore a strip of white silk off
the woman's body. He backed away from the frenzied feeding.
As he watched the wolves fight over their feast he painted a
crest on the silk with the woman's blood: a cherry blossom
clutched in an eagle's talons.
looked at the wolves and their grisly banquet. They would
feed long enough to allow him to reach Kura's village.
mounted the head of the ninja woman on the pike. Her
bloodless and stark features stared down at him.
"Inspector Kura awaits us, demon-witch."
banner snapping and fluttering in the cold air, Sugawara
marched toward the village.