19-7 Snow flurries danced through the sky above a little town in the narrow mountain valley.
The traveler who’d brought home the body of the townswoman earlier that winter stayed on for a while. He claimed to be vagabond from Hakurou but Teisetsu understood at once that this traveler was a knight of a chivalric order.
The man’s name was Hakugyuu. With so few workers around these days, he pitched in to fix the houses in need of repair. They were honestly grateful for his help. Winter had just begun when he showed up. In order to endure the bitter cold months to come, the broken-down buildings needed repairs. A small giant of a man with skills well suited for the job, Hakugyuu contributed more than his fair share alongside the townspeople.
To their great relief, before the worst of the winter settled in, they’d patched up most of the walls and roofs.
Hakugyuu stayed another fortnight helping the town prepare for the coming winter. Then he moved on, continuing his search for the man with white hair and crimson eyes. Before he left, as an expression of their gratitude, Teisetsu and the others asked around the neighboring towns if anyone had caught wind of a missing person matching that description but heard nothing useful back.
“They all say His Highness is dead,” Teisetsu reported to Hakugyuu, as if sympathizing with the passing of a loved one.
“There is also no evidence of his demise. I will keep looking.”
“The rumors that he’d died began circulating six or seven years ago. If he truly still lives, why has he remained silent for so long?”
Perhaps because he was scared of the pretender on the throne in Kouki and scampered to safety. He cowered in secret, doing nothing to save Tai while the kingdom went to the dogs.
When Teisetsu voiced these suspicions, Hakugyuu countered in a consoling manner, “There must be reasons, circumstances beyond our comprehension.”
“Don’t let your doubts get the better of you. Can we beg alms from the same man we accuse of running away and hiding to save his own skin? If you believe that after he has returned to the throne, he will right the wrongs and bless us with his benevolence, if you believe that he wants with all his heart to save the people of Tai, then keep on believing.”
Hakugyuu spoke softly and reassuringly. Teisetsu nodded. “You are right.”
With an encouraging slap on the back, Hakugyuu gathered up his things and departed.
His steadfast belief that the emperor still lived, that he would return to save the people of Tai, had a lingering effect on the townspeople. The temptation to surrender to fate and throw up their hands in despair faded away. They joined hands and worked together to tide over the coming winter while fortifying the town’s defenses.
Hakugyuu made it clear to them that the town was at a tactical disadvantage in any long-range attack. They had to be able to hold their ground under siege. They reinforced the gates and built ramparts and watchtowers to defend against a frontal assault. They fashioned bamboo shafts into spears and sharpened the cutting edges of their farm implements so they could be deployed as weapons at a moment’s notice.
They gathered all the supplies they could before the weather forced them indoors and disciplined themselves to keep from exhausting their food stocks during the winter.
“We’re not pushovers anymore, that’s for certain.”
Whatever it was that Hakugyuu left behind, not only Teisetsu but the despondent townspeople found a bit more steel in their spines. When it came to goods and materials, there was always room to negotiate. Sharing some of their supplies was unavoidable. But this time, they would not be handing over any of their own. Teisetsu and the townspeople came to that resolution together.
The day that tested that resolve arrived without warning.
Around the time the snow on the highways began to melt, several members of a local land gang showed up at the front gate. They’d run short during the winter and demanded food, charcoal, and some old person to be their servant.
Teisetsu took a deep breath and confronted them through the peephole in the gate. “We’ve only just made through the winter ourselves. We’re out of provisions as well. We’re sorry but we have nothing to offer.”
The gang members threatened him but Teisetsu refused. Standing his ground was much easier when there wasn’t a direct confrontation. At the end of a heated dispute, he agreed to hand over a small quantity of food and charcoal, but nobody in the town would be leaving with them.
“You are not welcome to any of the residents living here. And that means now and in the future.”
The gang leader roared and swore, but as long as the gate remained closed, there was nothing more he could do. They lingered at the gate shouting abuse before finally hauling away the few provisions given them in a decidedly bad mood.
The watchmen clambered down from the four towers at each corner of the ramparts.
“You did it, Teisetsu!” Gen’ei exclaimed. “Serves them right, getting a taste of their own medicine!”
Teisetsu nodded. It was good to know they could hold the line in the face of bluff and intimidation. He hated giving away any of their hard-earned goods to the likes of them, though he’d taken the possibility of parting with a portion into consideration from the start. The worst of winter was behind them and they still had enough to tide them over. Smiles returned to the faces of the townspeople.
The attack came five days later.
The land gang had mustered several dozen armed fighters, who charged the front gate with sledgehammers and ladders to scale the walls.
The lookouts on the watchtowers spotted them coming and sounded the alarm. The women and children gathered in a reinforced enclosure within the rika while the men seized their weapons and spread out along the ramparts. They only had their bamboo spears and repurposed farm implements, but those alone were far more heartening than going into battle bare-handed.
The leaders of the land gang began pounding on the gate with the sledgehammers. At the same time, their underlings leaned the ladders against the ramparts.
Except the townspeople had prepared portable platforms in advance. Taking directions from the lookouts in the watchtowers, they rolled the platforms over to the ramparts. As soon as they spotted an attacker clambering up a ladder, they rained stones down on his head and hacked away at the ladder with axes.
The sledgehammer crew broke through one of the side doors at the front gate, only to find that the area inside the gate had been fenced off from the rest of the town. Though not all that high, the fences were taller than the average man. When they tried forming human pyramids to jump over the fence, the townspeople climbed up first and knocked them down.
The attackers shot fire arrows into the town but the townspeople had stored water at strategic locations to douse any blazes that broke out.
The skirmishes went back and forth for half a day before the land gang retreated. They launched another raid late that night. The town again fended them off. A great many of the attackers slunk away battered and bruised, a few even seriously injured. The defenders suffered nothing worse than a few bumps and scratches.
The next day saw a few more token assaults that only resulted in more injuries for the land gang before they ran off for good.
Having surrendered to every unjust provocation for so long, Teisetsu and the townspeople at last savored their first real victory.