A crow was sitting on the dead tree stump, eyeing Sasami as she made her way down the narrow path. The large basket was heavy; she carried it with difficulty. It was laden with fresh produce from their farm; cabbages, radishes and carrots, which she was taking to the local market to try and sell. It was a fair walk for Sasami, but it was the only means by which Sasami and her ailing grandfather could earn a little money.
Sasami rounded a large thicket of bushes and came to a small clearing. Here the path widened, and became a little easier to traverse until it wound back into the trees ahead. Sasami gasped, shocked.
Bodies littered the ground; large men lay across the grass and at first Sasami thought they had been killed, however on further inspection she realised all of the men were still breathing. They had been knocked unconscious... but how? One of the men groaned in pain and opened an eye to stare at her.
Sasami stepped back, afraid, but the man was in a haze of agony and he slumped back dow. Sasami put her basket down and looked around in panic. What could she do? It would not be right to just... leave them like this. They needed help. She looked around, gasping as she noticed a trail of barely dried blood smeared across the grass. Someone was injured! Sasami's wide eyes followed the trail of darkening blood, which led to the small figure of a man. He had fainted at the base of a tree; in one hand he clutched a strange looking sword.
Sasami took one more look at the man and then started running - towards town.
She reached the clinic out of breath and with sore feet, but Sasami ignored the pain. She rapped on the door.
"Doctor Yoshikawa!" she cried, banging harder. Yoshikawa was the man who treated her grandfather. Surely he would know what to do! "Doctor! Please come quickly!"
Sasami breathed a small sigh of relief as the shoji slid open and the doctor appeared, looking as if he had just woken up.
"Sasami, what are you doing here so early? What is wrong, my child?"
"You have to come, doctor," she panted, still out of breath. "There are many men... in the clearing... wounded... they need your help!"
"Calm down Sasami," reassured the doctor. "Let me fetch my things."
Sasami watched - wide eyed - as Dr. Yoshikawa went to get his black medical bag. The doctor called for his young assistant Ryuji, who appeared from an adjacent room. He eyed Sasami with some surprise
"Now then Sasami." The doctor was unflappable, even in the face of Sasami's anxiety. "Where is this disaster you have told me about?"
"This way!" And then she began to run, this time a little slower so the doctor and his assistant could follow. They made their way to the outskirts of town and through a small patch of forest before reaching the clearing. Ryuji. let out a large breath at the sight of so many wounded men, while Doctor Yoshikawa simply shook his head.
"I wonder what could have happened to cause this..." None of the men were dead; that he could see quite clearly, however a few of them were quite badly beaten; the doctor could see large welts and not more than a few broken bones. One of the poor fellows rolled over and opened his eyes to stare at the doctor.
"Damn... hurts..." groaned the man. "Got beaten.... bad... ugh." He tried to sit up, but the pain was too much; no doubt the fellow had one or two cracked ribs. Dr. Yoshikawa bent down and put a firm hand on the man's chest.
"Stay right where you are, son. You're in no condition to be moving just yet. I'll bring some help as soon as I can."
"Doctor!" The Yoshikawa looked down as he felt a gentle tugging on his sleeve. Sasami's eyes were wide with concern. "There's a man over there... he's bleeding badly."
"Show me." Dr. Yoshikawa looked at his assistant, who was a little ashen-faced. "Ryuji, will you please run back to town and find my son? Eiji should be in the clinic. Please tell him to come here with as many men and stretchers as he can find."
"Hai!" Ryuji nodded and disappeared as fast as his legs could take him, heading for the town. Yoshikawa took Sasami's hand as she dragged him towards the tree. Her movements betrayed her impatience.
The doctor noted the trail of blood, which was beginning to dry. Whoever had been wounded had bled profusely; it would be quite a serious injury. His eyes followed the trail to a small figure; a man whom at first Yoshikawa mistook for a child, who was slumped near the base of a tree. However as the doctor looked more closely, he realised that the boy was in fact a man. He was so still that Yoshikawa wondered if he was really alive. Gently, oh so gently, the doctor knelt down and uncurled the man's fingers from the hilt of a sword. He then turned the body over. For possessing such a small body, the man was deceptively heavy. Yoshikawa put two fingers to the man's throat and was mildly surprised to feel a pulse; however faint.
"He's alive," he whispered, for Sasami's benefit. The girl had gone quiet. Across the man's faded gi a large red stain had blossomed, and immediately Yoshikawa ripped the fabric aside. His eyebrows rose at what he saw.
"This man has been shot!" He motioned for Sasami to pass the medical bag. The doctor opened it and pulled out swathes of bandages. He wiped away most of the congealed blood from the man's chest and bound the wound as tightly as he could. With all the blood he had lost, Yoshikawa was surprised that the slight man was still alive.
"He must have incredible stamina," muttered the doctor as he tied the bandages tightly. In relief he noticed that the bullet had penetrated the flesh cleanly; it had not ruptured any major arteries or shattered any bone, so it would be a relatively simple operation to remove it.
"Is he... gonna be alright?" asked Sasami hesitantly. Yoshikawa allowed himself a small smile at this girl's concern for a complete stranger.
"I'm quite sure he will be," he reassured her. "As soon as we get him back to the clinic I can operate on him, and I'll fix him up, don't you worry about that."
The doctor stood up and surveyed the rest of the men. He would have his work cut out for him today. Both Yoshikawa and Sasami simply stood still for a while, waiting for the men to arrive from the town. The morning air was cool and crisp, and the sound of chirping birds could be heard quite clearly in the stillness of the clearing. At the sound of voices, Yoshikawa looked towards the grove of trees, through which he could see a small army of men, some of whom were bearing stretchers. At their head was his son Eiji, who had shed his cook's apron for once.
"Father!" he called, as Yoshikawa motioned them over to where he stood. "What happened here?"
"I'm not quite sure," replied the doctor. "However I need a stretcher for this man." He gestured towards the wounded man. "He has been shot, and needs to be taken to the clinic as soon as possible." Yoshikawa turned to his aide.
"Ryuji! Help me to carry him please."
"Yes, Yoshikawa-sama." The young man and the doctor gently lifted the injured man onto a stretcher and made for the town, Sasami on their heels. Yoshikawa noticed that she had picked up the man's sword. When they reached the clinic, both men, despite being tall and relatively fit, were out of breath. Ryuji and Yoshikawa brought the patient to the operating bench, the latter with a small sigh of relief. Doctor Yoshikawa was getting old, and carrying an injured man on a stretcher was not as easy has it had once been.
The operation was a relatively simple one, with the bullet coming out easily; the doctor simply plucked it out of the wound with a pair of tweezers and dropped it into a metal dish with a satisfying clang. Then it was a simple case of disinfecting the wound and stitching it up. Yoshikawa nodded in approval as Ryuji tied off the last stitch with clean, economical movements.
"Very good, Ryuji," he murmured. "He should be all-right now; all that he needs is a great deal of rest. He's lost a huge amount of blood." And indeed their patient, with his deathly pallor, was beginning to show it. Yoshikawa wondered briefly who this man was. It was not every day that you received a patient who had been shot. In this era, such cases were becoming rarer and rarer. Gently, the doctor brushed away the red hair which covered half of his patient's face. In sleep, the man was almost beautiful, the doctor had to admit. The sharp features were nearly feminine, and yet unmistakably male; they were marred only by an odd scar which covered the stranger's cheek.
"What an odd looking fellow," muttered Yoshikawa, before his attention was diverted by the voices of men. It seemed that the rest of the injured were being brought in. He would be kept busy for some time yet.
"Let's take him to another room," he suggested to Ryuji. The younger man nodded, before narrowing his eyes.
"I don't mean any disrespect, Yoshikawa-sama, but..." he hesitated, as the doctor looked at him. "By treating this man... do you think that we will bring trouble to the clinic?"
"I understand your concerns, Ryuji," replied Yoshikawa, "however, it is everyone's right to be treated. If we have brought trouble upon ourselves by simply doing our duty... then..." The doctor shrugged as if there was no help for it. "I will not refuse any patient the care which he deserves."
Ryuji nodded, although this answer troubled him a little. "If you say so, doctor." Then both of them gently lifted their patient onto the stretcher and took him to the adjoining room where he could rest. Out in the hallway, Yoshikawa almost tripped over Sasami, who had been sitting patiently by the door.
"Oh my dear," he laughed, admiring the little girl's courage. She had been waiting for the better part of an hour. "I think your new friend is going to survive. He certainly owes you a great debt." Yoshikawa noticed that the girl still clutched the sword tightly by the hilt. "What do you have there, Sasami?"
"It's his sword," she replied, holding it out for the doctor to see. Ryuji also looked at the sword, his curiosity piqued.
"A reverse blade?!" he exclaimed. "But what use is that?"
"I think we now know why all of those other men have broken bones and bruises. The blunt side of a blade would inflict such injuries. Whoever your friend is, Sasami, he must be one hell of a swordsman."
Sasami clutched the blade even more tightly. Yoshikawa put a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder.
"You were very brave today," he said. "Sasami, you should go home now. I think you have done enough for today, and your grandfather will be worried. Come back tomorrow to collect his medicine, and you can visit your stranger if you like, although I do not think that he will be conscious for a few days yet."
"Uh..." Sasami hesitated, before nodding. "Thank you, doctor."
The doctor smiled and patted Sasami on the head. "You're a good girl," he said. "Now get home and give old Fujiwara-san my regards."