Autumn Grove

It was the seventh year of the Tensho era (1579).

Past the arrival of night, someone had the luxury of stepping into a room of women. Slowly, the stranger slid the door behind him closed. The room had an average style; tatami floor and restricting space, suited for a few guests, or maybe a prisoner for house arrest. Orange light from the lanterns outside barely reached through the shoji doors' paper walls.

Discerned before the stranger's eyes, the women lay in quilted futon bedding sound asleep. Their skin, unblemished white as peoniesthat bloomed over the nation's mountains, highlighted their faces. This was a feature among the favorite courtesans, or maybe entertainers.

Yes, Hayashi thought. Rubbing his hands together, he was very pleased. When he arrived, he didn't take full consideration as to which domicile he stepped in. It could've been completely guarded, or a storehouse full of rice, but he was glad. One woman opened her eyes, and her thoughts were unsettled in an instant. She met an obscure gaze, untouched by the torch light. The impression of an enmity faced her; the stranger Hayashi was shrouded in a cloak and hood. The woman's mouth opened, and her voice was muffled by a glove clapping over her face.

Her eyes widen; looking up, she could see a smirk beneath the hood.

"I'll use you," Hayashi breathed, and took out a long hand cloth. In the next instant, the cloth was wrapped over her mouth. Next, she was hefted off from the ground and bowed over a shoulder.

A moment later, the shoji door cracked, and toppled over a wooden veranda – from Hayashi ramming into it.

"Hey! Who's that?!" yelled a man with an instinctive force. The torches illuminated the cloak and hood in full view of two ashigaru armed with spears. They were clearly sentry, easily suspicious, and had paced towards the sound.

"Who are you?!" Both ashigaru inched closer, pointing their spear blades at the cloaked stranger.

"Here!" Hayashi swung an arm and threw a wave of fabric at the guards, fleeing afterwards. The guards stalled for a short moment, after descrying what looked to be the skin of a buttock shining in the torch light. The fabric, the woman's white kosode, dropped to the ground before the guards' feet. They bowed their heads as if just noticing it.

Hayashi scampered past the walled perimeters and into the darkness, rounding a curve that descended a mountain road. He did not look back. The honmaru, the main keep, was far above his head. It belonged to Kasugayama Castle (春日山城), the home and mountain stronghold of the Uesugi family. Its infrastructure, narrow roads connecting the garrisons and facilities of the castle, elevated high above ground with the main keep at the summit. Furthermore, with trees tucked around the roads, Uesugi artillery was given cover. For its inhabitants, Kasugayama supplied both a potent defense and a wide view of the landscape. Therefore, it was said to be impregnable to invasion.

Kaguyagama was also known as the koguchi – the tiger's mouth.

"Let go of me!" Each of the bare woman's words was a hum, her mouth still covered by a cloth. She was a servant named Okae (お果絵), belonging to one of the retainer samurai. Ignoring her, Hayashi continued to dash with every intention to get away. Nearing the base were training areas and other living quarters, and those inside were roused awake by the reverberating sound of a bell. More guards monitored the roads and kept alert for any suspicious movement. Those in elevated sentry posts did not detect any signs of invaders from the mountains' base. They especially looked above.

"The nokizaru?" Word spread of suspicion; in the region of Echigo, the term meaning "monkeys of the eaves", referred to the figures of covert operations – the shinobi.


Above, the moon marked a young month: its right side was scarcely lit. Compared to when he was standing in the torches, Hayashi could barely see. He used his arm to feel what was ahead of him. He could tell, however, that the distance between a cliff face and a slip to his doom was very small. The koguchi was a double-edged sword; the night masked both invader and defender. He treaded the slim roads lightly. Hayashi saw more torches below and far ahead, indicating some kind of post or residence, which was most likely guarded.

Later, he reached and ascended another road. It led to another enclose with a grove of zelkova serrata. Passing a torii gate, he then abruptly threw the woman onto her back, as if finally relieving a load. The hand cloth was pulled from Okae's mouth.

"Here we are," he said casually.

"What are you about to do with me, fiend?!" Okae immediately wrapped her arms around her chest and scooted away from the cloaked stranger. Hayashi didn't move or say a word, only watching. After separating herself, Okae pulled up her knees in all hopes to cover what she could. Despite the night mostly concealing her, her mind couldn't help but presume. She was taken from her quarters and stripped by a man after all. In addition, a breeze sent a shiver through her body.

Hayashi pulled back his hood; the darkness covered his smirk. He was a silhouette in the night, but Okae sensed that he was a young man.

"Heh, nothing," he finally said.

"What?" Her voice was a whisper. She was completely surprised.

"Heh, what I have my eyes on are not you, but weapons."

"Weapons? Why?"

Hayashi did not respond, and turned away from the naked woman. He reached out into the darkness, walking towards a nearby zelkova.

"However," he spoke, "if I can't get what I want soon, I might have to do something to you anyway."

"What do you mean?!" Now, Okae was worried. Hayashi's words were so plain and calm. Okae thought he was an impertinent young man, who was not a stranger to hurting others without consequence. It was like his aggression lay in waiting like a cunning animal.

"Make you scream." From the tree, Hayashi picked up something. The woman's breath was trapped within her throat. Even in the darkness, she saw the contour of a long item, at least five shaku, with a threatening aspect.

With the item in his hand, Hayashi continued. "Make you scream loud enough until someone gets here."

On top of the item's shaft was a three-pronged cross.

"No, wait! Please!" Using her heels, the woman scooted back further, and she shivered, her bare back touching straw. She looked back and touched a hanging shimenawa, a rope of straw, typically attached to a gabled shrine in order to protect it. Above its entrance was the shadow of a placard. It was unreadable from the night, but the structure behind Okae was high-profile among those in Echigo – Bishamon Shrine (毘沙門堂).

"If you don't want that, then pray." Hayashi closed in, using the weapon as a walking prop.

"Stop!" The plea was faint as a shallow wind; Okae's fear enraptured her.

"Pray for him to strike down the evil. Pray for the late Kenshin Uesugi to destroy me."

"Okae!" Suddenly, a male voice called from a distance. Like an answer from a god, a wide light entered the shrine premises. Hayashi turned and his eyes met two figures, along with the orange glare of carried lanterns.

"Katamaru!" cried the woman servant, her worry vanishing.

"At last!" Hayashi said with a gleeful smile.

"An intruder! Speak your name and reason for being here, now!" The lanterns' light haloed the scowl of a man with long hair. His head was not shaved, implying that he was young. With a name like Katamaru (確丸), a name of a child who hasn't reached growth, hasn't reached an age of marriage or being recognized for primogeniture, Hayashi felt a little disappointed, and the torch highlighted his frown. Katamaru leaned his head to see past the cloaked Hayashi, and his face changed to an expression of shock from seeing Okae naked.

"You damned—!" Without a second's thought, the young warrior gripped the handle of the sword at his hip.

"Wait!" The other samurai placed a hand on Katamaru's shoulder. "Okae, what happened?" He asked.

Saigoro (才五郎) looked more like a typical warrior, at least to Hayashi. His hair was pulled up above his head in a knot. The torch unveiled two swords at his hip, and a cuirass and thigh guards of closely laced metal plates. It was kozane lamellar – it didn't look as light as the ashigaru guards, who wore tatami armor. Due to the era, the tatami were a high necessity. For Saigoro to wear such an outfit, he must've been from a notable family.

Hayashi smirked. "Isn't it obvious?" he said, "I stole her from her quarters and stripped her. Do you want her back?"

"What?" Both samurai responded with shock.

"Then, there's only one thing I want," Hayashi paused, and hit the butt of his spear against the ground, "and that is a fight. I don't care about the girl."

Saigoro groaned; Katamaru was still being restrained, pulled by his shoulder.

"With such an impudent tongue, and to entrench upon the grounds of the Uesugi family, where Bishamonten's eyes watch, it easily shows that you don't mean well at all." Saigoro said. His eyes narrowed. "No, you are quite foolish."

"He does not run, so he must not be nokizaru then? A ronin?" said Katamaru.

"No," Saigoro replied with a shake of his head, "he is a young man who is like the demon of the second Path. Young man, I'll face you."

Letting out a laugh, Hayashi pointed his spear at Saigoro. "Now you seem like you're of worth," he sounded elated. "I want to know how many heads that you've collected."

"Do not accept such a monster's duel Saigo! He is a dishonorable, provocative fiend. We should rid of him like the snake that he is." Katamaru implored. He set down his lattern.

"Let me strike him down!"

"Katamaru, this place here is not for combat. Hasn't the Dragon of Echigo taught us to be modest?"

Saigoro's fingers pressed onto Katamaru's shoulder tightly. For a brief moment, Katamaru remembered that he stood near the Bishamon Shrine. A small architecture where Kenshin Uesugi used to pray before entering battle, and protected the inhabitants of Kasugayama. It was build at a close proximity of the castle's honmaru.

The junior warrior nodded his head. "This is good ground," he said. "I'll finish this quick."

Far too aggravated, Katamaru broke away from his companion. He slid out his sword and in the next instant, it crashed with hard oak. In the light, both Hayashi and Katamaru were eye to eye. The samurai had considered that his foe, after death, would receive divine punishment. Bishamon was a God that expelled evil, and gave faith to those who pursued martial arts.

"You seem to have a horse-dismounting vanguard spear," Katamaru said, "and at this time of night, on foot, why would you dare?" The young samurai took a swift step back, and the upper edge of his blade slid off the raised jumonji spear, curving into a low slash for the bowels. Pushing his foot Hayashi moved back, narrowly evading. He could feel a cool air against his waist from the passing steel. His body leaned; the butt of the jumonji spear stroked forth Katamaru's neck. Katamaru ducked, twice. The cross spear head passed over him as well.

During this, Okae scrambled around the two fighters and towards Saigoro's side. They both watched Hayashi's movements, especially his hands, which smoothly slid over the spear's shaft after he spun it around full circle. It surprised them.

"He's willing to chip his spear, and utilize such a long weapon in close range, and at such a speed. Just who is this fool? This is what he really wants?" Saigoro pondered, unable to avert his eyes. Okae only shook her head.

Katamaru backed away six shaku, which heestimated was enough to be out of the spear's range. Afterward, he didn't move; his anger and rashness was obstructed by his confusion.

What's with the stance, Katamaru thought.

Hayashi splayed his legs and held his spear in a slant over his torso, the blade pointing down and away from his opponent. He slightly crouched to maintain his balance; it was a standard middle-ready stance in bojutsu. Along the shaft, his hands were wide apart.

In offensive position, a spear wielder held the weapon so that the blade faced and threatened the foe. What was needed for an effective thrust was for both hands to be positioned above and below the center section. To make it spin, sometimes the hands drifted off, but Hayashi looked confident in his control. Katamaru, however, couldn't ignore the fact that he faced a really long spear. The naginata and kamayari were finely built for slashing or hooking a foe; the jumonji, with its straight spike and curved protrusions at the head base, was the same. Each blade was sharpened at all edges.

"Are you taunting me?!" Katamaru snapped and advanced.

"I have you!" Gripping tightly, Hayashi swung his jumonji in a wide swoop. Saigoro and Okae held their breaths; without a second's thought, Katamaru stopped and jumped the swing. Hayashi did a full rotation.

Okae cried out a term of endearment, "Brother!"

She and Saigoro didn't understand what happened, but Katamaru arced over the jumonji. In his unruly maneuver, he thrust his sword for his foe's neck, and then cast it aside. His sword arm angled behind him. The young samurai made a loud groan, and his body tottered away. Dislodged, his sword dropped near a zelkova.

"Heh heh heh, I like your face. Pick your sword up if you can." Hayashi taunted with a smile. Katamaru's face carried an indignant glare. He was holding his arm like it was in pain. Hayashi brought a hand up to his neck.

"You're certainly are not an amateur. Your sword's kissaki nearly punctured my neck," Hayashi let out a little laugh. He even imagined it, the moment where the sword's point would go through and out his throat, his larynx flooding with blood and his voice gurgling from blocked breaths. The idea made his head a little sore, and he brought his hand up to his temple.

Despite the grisly thought, Hayashi maintained his grin. The torches showed it clearly.

"Katamaru, are you alright?!" Saigoro asked anxiously.

Katamaru hissed and went to pick up his sword. "Such fowl trickery!" He complained, rubbing his arm tighter.

Saigoro and Okae were so surprised by what happened that they took a second look at Hayashi's spear to confirm. From the previous exchange of attacks, they saw something lash in between the two fighters. A gray snake they thought; it happened so quickly, like in a blink of an eye.

What was known was that Katamaru lost the grip in his sword, and there wasn't a sublime look in Hayashi's eyes. In the current era, one who could wield a spear with a graceful balance and a swift eye had a noble name that'd echo through the nation. Such a warrior, Hayashi, had the look of a person who relished in provocation and pain. One hand was tugging something behind him.

Hayashi rushed again; in the grass, something clattered behind him. The two were stopped a meter apart. Hayashi held his weapon like a sword, both hands gripping close together near its end. The shaft was short; the jumonji spear head – or rather, one section of the spear was missing. Katamaru's mind was wracked with confusion and he began to hesitate. He saw a spear before, and now it seemed that his opponent used a broken weapon.

Next thing he knew, his hands were squeezing together. Hayashi's arm spun around Katamaru's wrists like a funnel.

Then, the cloaked man had the jumonji spear head in his hand.

Katamaru gurgled; all three blades pierced through his neck. Saigoro and Okae dropped their mouths, and their words were lost in silence. Clear in the torch light, they could see the jumonji blades protruding out from behind Katamaru's neck. Okae recollected her mind and didn't turn her eyes from her brother. Then, she screamed out in anguish. Like a fork, Hayashi jerked up the three-pronged spear head, and Katamaru's head flipped off.

The zelkova seemed to weep. A breeze flew by, and red petals slowly flutter around the two combatants. Hayashi kicked the samurai, and the headless body and the red petals signaling the peak of autumn both dropped near Okae. He dragged something behind him and reconnected his weapon's shaft.

"That's it! I've gotten a head!" Hayashi's voice was filled with glee. He wanted to grab his prize; instead, he directed his attention to Saigoro. "I hope you're much better." the Ashura smiled, and pointed his spear at the other samurai.

Okae rushed up to her fallen brother, and crouched to embrace his head. His separated head.

"Hey, that's mine!" After his exclaim, Hayashi pointed his spear at Okae. "Brother or not, I took it off, so I keep it."

"You have no shame." Saigoro was rock-solid; his face was twisted with an angry grimace, contending with Hayashi's grin.

"Why should I? Everyone's fighting and dying for their daimyo crusades!" said the spear wielder.

Both basket-shaped lanterns were set down. Finally, Saigoro placed his hands on both sheath and sword grip. "Indeed. However, I don't revel in killing. We samurai are about instilling public order, to grow and protect family to ensure a future. But, you're different."

"Why do you lecture, old man? You fight for selfish reasons. But it's because of this era," Hayashi paused, and raised his spear above his head, "weapons like these were made."

He then spun it around, and shoved the spear blade into Katamaru's ankle. There was a gushing sound from metal digging into flesh.

"Stop it!" Okae cried.

"And," Katamaru continued, "we further developed the image of warfare. So, I would have to thank you greedy fools."

"So, you like warfare," Saigoro's instincts urged him to move, but even he hesitated. Rather, he looked at the spear. Older and experienced than Katamaru, even he would be foolish to face a spear and risk injury. From his moment of hesitation, something flew past his face. He glanced down, hearing a sound of something hitting the ground, along with the cracking of paper. Then, he swiftly brought his hand up to his face.

In between Okae and Saigoro were balls of paper, each expulsing a faint vapor. Saigoro cringed and tightened his hand around his mouth and nose; Okae did the same gesture. There was a pungent odor; Saigoro wasn't sure what it was, but he speculated that it was like dung left unclean in a stable for countless days, or a decaying animal, combined with smoke from a raging fire.

Hayashi backpedaled and coughed. The smell entered his nose, and his face muscles stretched on its own. He uttered an expletive and reached for his prize. Katamaru's head was next to Okae, slowly pouring blood from the orifice leading into the neck. The skin was ripped so disorderly that half of his slit trachea was exposed.

His hand closed in, and then the torch light suddenly shifted in a different direction. A shadow, after having kicked the lanterns away, rushed over to Hayashi.

"Enough! More are coming! Quickly!" Hayashi was grabbed. A moment later, he stumbled down the road descending Bishamon Shrine. His coughs were suppressed from a cloth around his mouth. The shadow carried his spear.

The Ashura and the shadow made their escape.


The zelkova serrata's crimson petals were seen even on the night of a new moon. The wind picked up heavily in Autumn, scattering the petals while they descend the mountain.

"Are you satisfied? How foolish of you to come out here and nearly get killed."


Hayashi and another man were outside Kasugayama's feudal fields, and were now inside of a dispute. They were by a campfire.

"You continue to wander from Kawagoe Castle in search for blood. You talk about being loyal, but what if the enemy was to come to home?" Leaning on a tree trunk was a warrior that looked younger than Saigoro, and even more charming due to high cheekbones. Even the top of his head was partially shaved, the rest of his hair cued at the back. He wore the robe of a court official. It rippled in the passing wind.

"Be quiet!" Hayashi scowled at a reproachful face.

"And yet, you're not present for our Lord?" While glaring at Hayashi with steely eyes, accented by thick eyebrows, the man known as Ishikawa continued with his reprimanding.

Hayashi could not bear the words or the look he was given.

"I said be silent!" The cross spear flew to the side, and its fork blade was caught by a sword.

"What do you know, you rogue?!" Hayashi spat and fell back, withdrawing his spear.

Ishikawa raised a fist at the Ashura. "Imbecile! You were sent to Kasugayama to read its pathways and familiarize it for our Lord Hojo, not to revel in violence."

"Humph," Hayashi turned his back to Ishikawa, resting the spear over his shoulders. "You never appreciate what I do," he said. "What does it matter? They are our enemies."

"I will show you what it means to be a vassal. If your actions hinder our Lord and Master's future endeavors, I'll smite you."

Hayashi only smiled. "I'd like to see you try. Besides, you made me not get my head." The bile in the spear wielder's voice eased a little. There was anticipation for the challenge presented.

"You know what happens when you fight me for too long."

"Lord Fuuma won't be happy with you."

The other man didn't say a word.

"Look rogue, if I don't fight then what of us? What of the next war? We'll be unprepared. Or rather, we'll be useless."

"Are you not satisfied practicing with me?" Ishikawa asked, frowning. He still looked aggravated.

Hayashi glanced over his shoulder and answered, "We don't get to choose who to battle."