Hattori Kenshin would right the wrongs of this forest.
And learn exactly what its trees had to hide.
The mountain grumbled once more, this time even louder. As though it were warning everyone present that the sun was on the cusp of disappearing. That all light was about to be lost. Mariko grabbed her katana and searched for Ōkami. The Wolf had moved to direct other members of the Black Clan into the trees, as they’d decided early on.
What they lacked in numbers they planned to make up for in higher ground. Mariko was supposed to have climbed into her post immediately. But she’d stopped to help Ren. Her erstwhile tormenter still had not gathered enough provisions or adequate weapons for the pending siege.
And now they were out of time. Not all of them would make it to their assigned posts. Not all of them would be able to fend off the attack.
When the arrows started to rain down through the trees, Mariko knew they’d also lost the option to flee. Her eyes flitted across the rapidly darkening underbrush, searching for something, unable to find—
“Follow me.” Ōkami moved alongside her, sure-footed, even through the rising gloom. He hoisted Mariko into a tree before climbing into position at her side.
The call for another volley of arrows echoed from the woods beyond.
Ōkami grabbed the wooden shield and yanked Mariko against his chest. The solid beat of his heart thudded in her ear as arrows pounded into the shield and struck the branches around them.
The thunder of hooves followed soon after the last arrow volley. When the mounted samurai came into range, the Black Clan began firing back.
Mariko reached into her pouch of throwing stars. And took a deep breath.
Ōkami ripped an arrow from the tree trunk before firing it into the first wave of charging cavalry. “Fight back, Hattori Mariko. I know he’s your brother. But his men are not making the distinction. And neither should you.”
“I know.” She gritted her teeth.
“The only power any man has over you is the power you give him.” Ōkami fired another shot, and a soldier tumbled from his horse below.
At that, Mariko rolled her shoulders, took aim with her throwing star, and hurled it into the darkness.
She’d managed to injure three samurai and take down another warrior from his steed before she noticed something. Mariko could not see her brother anywhere. If she knew Hattori Kenshin at all, she knew her brother would be at the vanguard of any fight.
Something was wrong.
Mariko looked past the trees. And saw torches in the distance.
But they were not normal torches.
They were immense. Rounds of fire bigger than Yoshi’s iron cauldron.
“We have to get down.” She gasped. “Tell all the men to climb down from the trees at once.”
The Wolf loosed another arrow. “What?”
“Do it now, Ōkami!”
Across the way they heard a shout. Mariko saw Yoshi tumble from a tree to the ground, breaking several branches along the way. Ōkami whistled loudly before vaulting to the forest floor to help him.
At that moment, the first ball of fire was catapulted in their direction.
And the sound of men screaming in terror began.
It is over,” Kenshin shouted to the trees.
Smoke curled in the night air before Mariko’s brother. Blood scented the leaves at her sides. Fire smoldered against the forest floor. She strained once more to see any signs of Ōkami and Yoshi, but could not make out anything beyond the wall of smoke to her left.
“Reveal yourselves,” Kenshin said grimly. “Return my sister. And the rest of your men might live through this night.”
“And if I refuse?” Ranmaru replied. His back was to a tree trunk beyond her brother’s view. The leader of the Black Clan smiled at Mariko as he spoke, but it did not touch his eyes.
“I will set fire to every tree in this forest.”
Ranmaru’s laughter was bitter. “Then you—and your sister—will burn with us.”
“This forest is not yours to control anymore,” Mariko’s betrothed said, his voice clear and firm.
“I was wondering why you chose to show yourself today, Raiden-chan.”
“Who is that?” Raiden said, urging his horse forward.
Ranmaru stood, his back still to the tree. “We played together as children. Would you know me if you saw me now?”
“Show yourself.” Mariko watched Raiden dismount from his black warhorse. “You have taken my bride prisoner. I propose a trade. Return Hattori Mariko to me, and I will return something of great value to you.”
“And if I refuse? Will you then burn your bride as well?”
A breath of tense silence passed. “Reveal yourself.” Raiden turned to the samurai behind him, taking hold of a sheathed sword from the warrior’s hand. “And I will give you that which your father lost so many years ago.”
To Raiden’s right, a grey fox shifted into view, staring at Mariko through the smoldering trees. Before darting back into the shadows.
“I have no interest in anything you might have to offer.” Ranmaru did not even look to see what it was. Instead he reached for Mariko’s hand and squeezed it once.
The torch at Raiden’s side rendered his smile sinister. A smile that would—on any other occasion—be pleasing to most young women’s eyes. But never to Mariko’s. Not after this night. “I think you do not know what it is I possess.”
Ranmaru sighed quietly. “I think you do not know what it is you seek.” Nevertheless the leader of the Black Clan let go of Mariko’s hand.
And moved into view.
Ōkami wiped the blood from Yoshi’s mouth as he listened to his dearest friend barter with the son of his greatest enemy.
Yoshi coughed again, and more blood trickled from his lips.
“You can’t die yet, old man,” Ōkami said with a sad smile.
“And you can’t tell me what to do, you ungrateful boy. You gave up that right long ago.” He returned the smile, then winced.
Ōkami glanced at the wound in his side. At the blood leaking from the arrow puncturing Yoshi’s stomach.
Slowly killing him.
“Are you going to let him do this?” Yoshi whispered.
Ōkami wiped the blood from his mouth once more.
“Don’t let him do this,” Yoshi continued in an urgent whisper. “The young lord has done everything he can to make up for what happened those many years ago. For what his father did. Please forgive him.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Yoshi-san.”
“Then don’t let the young lord die to keep your secret.”
“I would die before letting anything happen to him.” Ōkami inhaled slowly. “And it didn’t begin as my secret.”
“It was always your secret. The young lord made it to protect you.” Yoshi cringed in pain. “Now it is your turn to protect him. Do this for me. Do this for your father.” He reached for Ōkami’s hand. “Be as swift as the wind. As silent as the forest.”
Ōkami wrapped both hands around Yoshi’s bloodied fist. “As fierce as the fire. As unshakable as the mountain.”
“Rise from the ashes,” Yoshi said. “And take your rightful place.”
The leader of the Black Clan moved forward warily. The sound of bowstrings being tensed murmured through the branches.
Mariko watched Ranmaru shift toward her betrothed. For an instant, she was unnerved by how much bigger Minamoto Raiden appeared. Ranmaru was not small. But Raiden was far broader in the shoulders. His armor and the twisted horns curling from his helmet made him seem more powerful than Ranmaru in all the ways that mattered. Especially on the field of battle.
Like the remainder of her shadow warrior brethren, Mariko crouched forward, brushing her thumb across the surface of her last throwing star.
Ready to strike.
She tried to ignore the hurt that filled her eyes when she glanced her brother’s way. Mariko could never take aim at Kenshin. Her brother had asked after her. But he’d not attempted to make a trade before raining arrows down upon the Black Clan. Before catapulting spheres of fire into the trees. Any of which could have killed her. Any of which nearly did.
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