The traveling party, consisting of Crab Clansmen: Hiruma Nokatsu, Yasuki Genji, Yasuki Gorobei, and Kaiu Hachi, as well as Daidoji Mizue and Kakita Hojatsu of the Crane Clan, and Shiba Tetsujin-no Sodona of the Phoenix, and Shinjo Lily of the Unicorn quickly realized that the assault on their beast of burden could only mean that the raiders were not interested in theft – or they would have wanted to preserve the ox to make it easier to get away with the goods it was hauling.
That meant the ronin were interested in the death or deaths of some or all of the party members. Without the ox to pull the wagon, the group stood no chance of making it to the safety of the next Way Station before nightfall, and would almost certainly be forced to camp out in the open where they would be exposed to a night attack. Shiba Tetsujin had just traveled this road about a week prior, and he quickly scanned through his exceptional memory for the most defensible position on the roadway ahead for the group to make their stand. The Phoenix yojimbo suggested a point near the summit of the trek, a couple of hours ahead, where it was relatively open, and granted minimal opportunities for a terrain advantage to their attackers. The group quickly agreed that this was their best option, especially since Yasuki Genji was stringently opposed to even the suggestion that his cargo might be left behind.
The band of travelers made it to their desired destination with the massive sumai champion, Kaiu Hachi pulling the wagon in place of the ox. They set up camp, and built a fire to ward off the chill spring night of the Phoenix lands, where here and there patches of snow could still be seen in the cool spots where the sun rarely reached here in the foothills.
The party set up a watch schedule, which placed Yasuki Gorobei and Shinjo Lily standing guard for the first two hours, which passed without event. The same could not be said of Shiba Tetsujin and Hiruma Nokatsu’s second watch. While patrolling the outer limits of the camp – Tetsujin spotted a figure, crouching in the shadow of a small scrub plant. Tetsujin immediately hurled his spear and raised the alarm, but it was not fast enough to prevent the lurking shadow from hurling a burning brand in to the extremely combustible wagon load of paper and driftwood beneath which Yasuki Genji and Daidoji Mizue slept. Even as the cargo erupted into flame, arrows begin to whistle in from the darkness. The Phoenix quickly had a foot long shaft protruding from his right shoulderblade, while the big Crab watched one arrow narrowly miss, and another vibrated in his Sode without penetrating.
As the rest of the party wakened, arrows continued to fly into camp from the north, east, and west, with one striking the Unicorn Battle maiden as she mounted her horse, and another driving into a roused Kaiu Hachi as he charged off into the darkness from which his assailant fired. The injured Tetsujin helped to pull Mizue clear of the burning wagon as Yasuki Gorobei did the same for his father on the other side while the Kakita stood guard and took a shuriken in the left arm for his trouble.
Now astride her mount, Lily thundered into battle and quickly took a shot at the massive shadow that loomed beyond the firelight. Seemingly unaffected by her arrow, the crag-like man scrambled forward and brought his massive Ono down on her left arm, with a sickening thud that rendered the extremity virtually useless.
In the darkness, crashing and cursing could be heard as the massive Hachi tried to chase down and put an end to the concealed archer, but instead found a swordsman standing in his way.
Genji tried frantically and futilely to scoop dirt onto the rapidly expanding sheath of flames consuming his profits while his son stood guard, and Nokatsu shambled after the Shinjo.
With the party now scattered, a horseman thundered through the center of the camp and drove a yari through Gorobei’s right thigh as he passed. A conflicted Genji surprised even himself as he yelled for his son to forget the cargo, and deal with the raiders, running for what he perceived as the cover of a nearby bush. Unfortunately for the trader, a second horsemen swept in from the darkness as soon as Genji left the protected area where his towering son stood guard, and ripped the Crab’s back open with his katana. An enraged Gorobei charged to his father’s assistance and brought his tetsubo down on the rider’s head, driving it down into his torso with a thunderous crack.
Hearing her patron’s cry of pain, Shinjo Lily spurred her horse Salem away from her own attacker, and swept Genji up onto the back of her horse to remove him from further harm’s way. Meanwhile, Nokatsu engaged the moving lump of rock with an ono that had struck her. This left him exposed to the archer on that side of the battle, and he took an arrow in the arm with minimal affect.
Frustrated by having to stand guard over his charge, and not engage the enemy, the Crane Duelist, Kakita Hojatsu cried out a challenge to any of the attackers that were man enough to face him. Much to his surprise, the first horseman circled around and answered his challenge. The leader of the ronin band dismounted and drew his katana, squaring off against Hojatsu in single combat, while Tetsujin continued to watch over Mizue. The duel was over in two passes, as Hojatsu opened his attacker’s hip with his first lightning strike, sidestepped the counter attack, and finished the ronin with a follow up strike that left the ronin’s head rolling in the dirt.
With their leader fallen, the remainder of the ronin band quickly began to crumble. Yasuki Gorobei jumped astride the horse that his enemy no longer needed, and rushed to his cousin’s side. Hachi defeated his first opponent with a sledge hammer blow that caved in his rib cage. The archer he had been protecting shot Gorobei’s horse out from beneath him and fled rather than face both Crab alone.
Dropping Genji off near the protection of the Phoenix yojimbo, Shinjo Lily circled back around to help Nokatsu, but to her horror looked to see she may be too late. Hiruma Nokatsu delivered a strike with his tetsubo that would have given pause to an ogre. The slab of a man merely smiled through a gap in his teeth and delivered a return blow that snapped Nokatsu’s left femur and might have severed it completely if not for the Crab’s heavy armor.
“Nokatsu!” the Unicorn maiden drew her bow, and launched an arrow at the mountainous ronin to draw his attention. In response his companion began returning fire.
With his massive axe hovering over the Crab, who could not stand in the weight of his armor and weapons with one leg, the massive warrior pointed at Lily. “You – get off the horse, and come fight me like a warrior, or your friend dies.”
Lily dismounted and drew her katana, even as Salem screamed his own challenge and charged the archer.
Lily came forward, sword held in one hand, her left arm too swollen and sore to be of any real use. The diminutive samurai-ko looked like a goblin facing and ogre before the tremendous bulk of the man the other ronin called ‘The Rock’. With cat like grace, she feinted to one side and rolled to the other catching the huge man off guard. Luck was with her as the man tried to pivot to follow her and lost his footing in the darkness. The big man stumbled and Lily struck, sweeping her sword across the backs of both of of his knees and severing the tendons. Helpless to control his own legs, the big man fell to his back with a crash howling in pain and rage.
Kaiu Hachi rushed over to help the little battle-maiden, but there was no need. Salem proved equally up to the task, and brutally trampled the last archer beneath his iron shod hooves, trumpeting his his victory to the heavens.
In the end, two of the seven ronin were missing, having shamefully chosen their lives over victory and honor. With the help of Lily and Salem, the group was able to round up four of the horses their opponents had ridden.
Two of the would-be-assassins, the big axe-wielding ‘Rock’ and the Salem’s trample victim still lived, although without the attention of a shugenja, Lily doubted the archer would survive his internal injuries long. As the only local Clansman, the group deferred to Shiba Tetsujin’s judgement on how to deal with the prisoners. The man who had taken the name ‘philosopher’ could not bring himself to ruthlessly execute defeated men and decided they must be brought to a magistrate for judgement.
Yasuki Genji wept for a while, more over his loss of profit than from the vicious strike that had laid his back open to the bone. As soon as Lily had finished bandaging the wound, he drew a pair of chopsticks from his obi, and began picking through the corpses of the ronin. He yelped with joy when he discovered each of the men they had defeated (including the two non-corpses who were not in a position to protest) had two koku on them (except for the leader on whom he’d found three), and declared loudly that he swore he’d seen these koku before, insisting that they were the same he had given to Yoritomo Ogura for the very goods that were still giving off a bonfire glow to the night. The Crab trader did not need to remind the travelers that Ogura’s brother Ito probably still believed that Genji and possibly the rest of the party as conspirators, were responsible for the death of his brother, and the results of the trial that had allowed another to take the blame. “At least with these koku, and the sale of the horses, I might almost break even for this trip. This reminds me of the time…” spirits renewed the Yasuki spun another unlikely tale involving his run in with a djin that had granted him three wishes, which he’d spent on a keg of sake, a fortune in gold, and a beautiful woman…who, when he had awakened, had left with the gold and the sake.