There wasn't much space in the Hayame village hall, and many of the villagers were forced to stand outside and try to listen through the large open door. Ayane had been lucky to be the apprentice to Kagura, the village priestess. Kagura and Ayane was a couple who had been allowed to sit in the front in order to hear the village elder, Nosuke.
Everyone had been asked for, from the smallest children to the oldest elder, every man and woman who were there to attend. Everyone knew exactly why they had been called, and none were happy about it due to the sad reminder which it would bring. Everyone knew that the autumn was approaching, and with that meant the harvest.
The harvest in itself was not the problem, but what it would bring which was the real problem. Hayame Village was a coastal village on a small chain of islands off the coast of Seiryū with rich soil. They always were successful, and everyone in the area knew it.
Including the pirates.
The seaborne raiders had attacked last year after they had finished the harvest. There had been many deaths, including all of Ayane's family which had led her to her apprenticeship under Kagura. Worst of all however was the theft of most of their rice and barley by the pirates in their ships. Even more young and old had died in the winter, and they had barely recovered. Now the harvest was approaching again, and everyone knew there would be no survival should the pirates attack again.
Ayane looked over to Kagura, an elderly woman who had lived over seventy years when most were lucky to see their fortieth. The wrinkles all over her face and body showed her age as well as her skinny body and limbs. She wore only a plain white woman`s kimono with stains from years of poverty.
Ayane moved her head close to whisper into Kagura`s ear. "Do you think there's anything that we can do?" she asked in a hushed and fearful tone.
"All we can do is see what options there are to us and then decide our path from there", Kagura answered quietly. Her voice was almost like a growl from the damage which old age had done to her vocal chords, though there was not aggression or hostility to it.
Ayane didn't bother to pester her with more questions since she knew that she was right. All that they could do was to wait and see what happened, since Ayane at least had no good answer to their current predicament.
Elder Nosuke now stood in front of everyone in the hall and outside so he could be heard. Nosuke was about the same age as Kagura, an old wrinkled man who was balding with grey hair and much more tanned from his toil as a farmer. Unlike Kagura he wore a men's black kimono which went down to his thighs just above his knees and wore simple straw sandals.
Elder Nosuke gave a small cough to clear his throat before he began to speak. "I am sure you are all aware as to why it is that I have called all of you hear today, but I will say it anyway. Harvest is coming and the threat of pirates is on us once again. We have only a month before the harvest, and afterwards is when they will arrive." After saying that, Nosuke sat down cross-legged on the simple bamboo floor with a thoughtful frown on his face.
The first to pipe up was a middle-aged man, a carpenter named Kantaro. "I have a solution!" he said with his hand raised. Nosuke and the rest of the crowd looked at him, not giving him any sign to continue to talk but waiting for him. Kantaro picked up the queue and said, "We should send a message to Lord Ryūjin and request him send-"
"You know that won't work!" shouted a farmer named Ranba. "You know that Ryūjin and the rest of the Dragon Clan are right now at war and that he will not spare any soldiers to defend us!"
"B-but", Kantaro helplessly stuttered, "we already pay our taxes through rice and we contribute to feeding his army, so he'd want to prote-"
"He won't care!" Ranba interrupted again. "Everyone knows that most of his food supply for his armies is in Kago Province across the waterway. He will defend his supply there, but he won't see the cost of sending troops to defend a village which can send only so much rice over due to the sea." Ranba quieted down before finally stating, "We are the least-worried province under the Dragon Clan and are not worth the risk in their eyes."
Nosuke was nodding his head in agreement. "Ranba is right", he stated. "He will not send forces if we ask, and getting the message to the mainland is a pointless waste of time because of that."
There was a brief period of silence when a young lad of about fifteen stood up. "We can defend ourselves", he said with a confident tone. "We have reserved armour and spears for when we're conscripted, so we can fight them with that."
Nosuke shook his head. "Yes Sanjuro, we have the arms and armour", he admitted, "but many of our men who could fight were wiped out either by the raid last year or over the winter from starvation. I would say we have about twenty able-bodied men in the village that could defend it, and I'm including youth such as you, Sanjuro. We were attacked by two ships each carrying about twenty-five men each. They were armed and armoured better than us as well. We would have no hope of fighting them off."
Once again a silence came over the crowd as the grim hopelessness of their situation became more and more apparent. The wind from the sea blew through the village and the hall, the only sound which could be heard. Then: "Perhaps death is the fate intended for us."
Everyone looked up in complete surprise at Nosuke.
The elder looked tired as though the burden of being the source of wisdom for the village hung on his shoulders. He had a look of profound sadness on his face, as though he knew their fate. Perhaps the worst part was that there was not one man or woman who tried to scold him or berate him for what he said. Everyone seemed to have the same feeling.
"When they come", Nosuke said, "we will give them what they want so that they can leave us and not kill anybody. It is the best that we can hope for, us simple farmers."
"There would still be those who died during the winter, however." This time is was Kagura who spoke out. She was normally very collected and silent and said very little, so her comment surprised Ayane. "If they take our rice and barley, than we will merely lose more over the winter. We will recuperate a little bit until they attack again the next year. Eventually the village will perish. Giving them what they want is not the answer."
Everyone silently looked at Kagura with respect, knowing her answer was true but nothing by which they could say to support it as no one had a solution. Nosuke, however, looked at Kagura curiously as if she knew something which they didn't. "So what do you propose we do then, Kagura?" he asked curiously.
Ayane shifted, wondering whether Kagura was going to tell them what she had told her this morning. Kagura was silent for a second with her eyes closed as if trying to find the right words in her mind, then: "Last night I received a dream from the spirits. In that dream I saw our village under an autumn sunrise. There was not anyone of the village out, and to the coast I saw the ships by which the pirates were climbing out from and were walking to our village to take what they desired. Yet at the entrance to the village I saw something I couldn't believe: samurai. They were of different builds and appearance, but they all were armed and ready to fight against the pirates for our sake. I believe it is these samurai whom I dreamed of that will be our salvation."
The hall was all in awe of Kagura as she spoke. Kagura had been known for her visions which had helped to save the village in times of peril such as storms and other disasters which approached, though she had not seen the last pirate attack. Even then though, most of the villagers had a healthy respect for the priestess.
Only most though, and Ranba was quick to argue. "You know we are poor Kagura!" he shouted in frustration. "We don't have enough worth for our own lord and master to be bothered to protect us! Do you really think there are samurai who would be willing to protect us?"
"You are a fool who does not know much about samurai, Ranba", Kagura replied. Ranba's face began to go red with outrage, but Kagura didn't give him time to speak. "Greed is but one of the things which drives a samurai, Ranba. Wealth and power do cause some samurai to fight, but not always. Sometimes it is glory and the thrill of battle, and even sometimes it is justice and righteousness which guides his blade. Even if we can find neither of those, samurai are not immune to the hard times of life which we bear. Should worst come to worst, find hungry samurai whom we can feed to protect us."
Everyone began to murmur as slowly the crowd began to agree with what Kagura was saying; even Ranba was thinking about it. Nosuke, however, had something to say. "Who can we spare to find these samurai though?" Nosuke inquired. "We need everyone if we are to finish the harvest on time, Kagura. Who would we send to find these samurai?"
Kagura for the first time that day smiled at Nosuke's question as though she had been waiting for him or someone else to ask just that question. "I completely agree", she said with a bit of a chuckle. "We'll send someone who can travel a good distance but wouldn't be much help here anyhow. Therefore, I'll send Ayane to find us our samurai."
Ayane's eyes went wide and her jaw dropped as she was dumbstruck when Kagura said her name. She looked right at Kagura, who only smiled at her. Before Ayane could object, another villager was up defending her. "She's only a girl" he said with worry in his face. "If she's going to find samurai, that means she'll be looking for them in Namikaze across the waterway. You can't really be thinking at risking her safety there." It was no secret that everyone knew Namikaze, a small port town across the inlet on the mainland was not of good reputation.
Kagura gave the man a stern look which told him not to challenge her without any words. "Ayane is training to become a miko, a priestess", she explained. "A miko spends a part of her life travelling, and those of smaller shrines such as us did not have the protection of bodyguards or even men at times. This is something Ayane will have to face, and this will merely prepare her ahead of time then most her age. I have complete faith she is up to the challenge."
That statement eliminated some of the fear in Ayane as she realized that Kagura had just praised her. Praise was something which Kagura had never given her during the whole time she had lived with and been an apprentice under her. Ayane had worried that perhaps she was a failure since she wasn't improving as fast as Kagura would have liked. Hearing that gave her a little more confidence.
Now everyone turned to Nosuke, since he was the one who had the final word. While he was not under any sort of official control, everyone had turned to him for his wisdom for years and always sought his final word on any decisions. Unlike before, Nosuke was slowly nodding his head while his eyes looked as though they were looking right up into his head as though he was sorting something out. Finally he said," Very well, I will arrange a ferryman to take Ayane out to Namikaze tomorrow."
It was evening now and the sun had set over the western horizon, leaving the islands in darkness. Kagura and Ayane stayed in the shrine which was at the end of a small path outside of town. The shrine was inside a small hut which Kagura and Ayane both slept in. The candlelight reflected off the small altar which had a small silver dragon statue on it, one which represented the local spirit which was said to occupy the mountain spring much farther up the mountain which gave the water into the rice paddies.
Ayane stared at the dragon longingly. Kagura had told her that the spirit would make itself heard to her, but Ayane hadn't definitively heard a voice. She had once been awake during the night when a wind came through and what sounded like a small growl was in it. Ayane figured that she might have just dreamed it, but Kagura was sure she had heard the spirit when she told her the next morning.
"Stop staring at it, Ayane", Kagura said from behind. "You still have packing left to do for your trip tomorrow."
Ayane took her eyes away from the altar as ordered and continued to pack a small sack. In it were some rations of barley and a couple rice cakes, a small comb and a very small blanket which only covered her when she had curled up. As she finished putting the last things in the sack, she paused and a troubled look came across her face. Kagura noticed and asked what was wrong.
"...Are you sure you made the right choice?" Ayane finally asked.
Kagura looked puzzled by the question. "You mean about sending you?"
"Not just that" Ayane replied. "I mean about me really being capable of becoming a priestess."
Kagura gave a sigh but then chuckled a little. "It is your doubt in yourself which restricts you the most, Ayane", she said. "It is not a question of whether you find yourself worthy of the spirits, since I know that they see the potential in you for you to serve them. The question which causes you such difficulty in hearing them is your doubt in yourself."
"You were able to hear them from such a young age though", Ayane complained. "You could hear them and talk to them when you were only seven. I'm seventeen and I'm still not sure whether or not I can hear them."
"And that is why", Kagura answered. "The spirits can be heard by anyone if they really wish to hear them and to serve them, but you must believe not only in them but yourself. The reason I heard them so young was that I truly believed I could hear them, and that belief had many doubters. Because I persevered however, the spirits gifted me."
Kagura moved over and lifted Ayane up so they were both standing, then she cupped Ayane's cheeks with her hands and smiled at her. "I know there is a potential within you that is greater than you could possibly imagine. I know because the spirits tell me: they told me when they told me to take you on as my apprentice. Do not doubt them and do not doubt yourself, and when you do, you will see a whole new world open up to you."
Tazuna was waiting along with the rest of the villagers as Ayane and Kagura arrived to the small dock the next morning. Tazuna was a man in his early thirties who wore a wide-brimmed hat and an earthy brown men's kimono which had its share of stains like most of the villages. The ferryman was already in the back of the boat with the oar when the two miko finally arrived.
Ayane stopped before Nosuke who handed her a small bag which jingled with the sound of some coins in them. "We all pitched in what we could to help", Nosuke said with a smile. Ayane took them and gave a bow in gratitude. When she looked at him again, Nosuke's smile seemed a lot like Kagura's in that moment: one with complete encouragement and faith in her. It made her smile back at him.
Ayane slowly climbed into the boat, the rocking of the boat unusual to her since she hadn't been in one before. After she had settled down, Tazuna then began to move the oar back and forth from side to side like a fish, pushing the craft forward. The villagers waved goodbye to Ayane and she waved back as they cheered good luck for her. Ayane couldn't help but shed a small tear since she was now starting to feel the faith in herself which Kagura said was the only thing she was lacking, even when she could no longer see the shore or hear them.