Nee-chan! Nee-chan nee-chan nee-chan nee-chan!" A small blond bundle came rushing towards her feet, and Isane found herself a little overwhelmed.
Scooping the too large yukata up, she brought the little girl towards her face. "Kiyone? What's the matter?"
"They're coming!" The little girl buried her face into the crook of Isane's neck. "They're coming, nee-chan, and 'Tou-san and 'Kaa-san aren't here!"
Patting Kiyone gently, Isane slowly rubbed circles on her back, "They said they would be coming back today, remember?"
"But they're already here! They're already here! Gozu-san said that they are already here! Nee-chan, I want 'Kaa-san."
"Shh, shh, it's going to be alright, Kiyone. It's okay. They wouldn't touch people like us, they wouldn't. It's okay. It's going to be alright. We'll all be fine." Isane was not sure if Kiyone could feel her shaking, could feel the uncertainty and the fear behind those words.
In truth, the situation had worsened over the months. 'Kaa-san had gone back to where she had come from, she had left Isane notes on what to do, apology letters for when Kiyone was older, it was unsafe in Seki, and Edo was a much better choice. Once the battle began, she said, there was no telling what would happen. And this was going to be the biggest battle ever.
'Tou-san had been called away by the officials and Isane had refused to leave after he had left. 'Tou-san had always been kind to them, he had always been kind to Kiyone, always, always, always. Isane would not run away, she would not run away like 'Kaa-san had, because running away was cowardly.
And all this she had not told Kiyone, but there was something about little children that let them know exactly what was going on, and the younger sister suddenly stiffened involuntarily before burrowing deeper into the hug. "They're here, nee-chan. I can hear them."
Quickly putting Kiyone on the ground before loosely her onto her back, Isane grabbed the loose clothes she had kept for this occasion, the set of rice balls already neatly tucked within the cloth.
The envelope which 'Tou-san had left them sat near the fireplace, and this Isane snatched, quickly cramming it into the bundle. This was their ticket to Otsu Castle.
Feet pattering along the dirt roads, Isane ran towards the forest to the North. She had to get to Otsu somehow. They said that Otsu was safe, that Otsu would be safe. It was far from Seki, further from where they said they were going to fight.
The road seemed to be largely empty. It stretched on, winding its way through the dark forest, the air chilling around her as she ran. The air in the forest was becoming denser and thicker, the atmosphere almost oppressive, and Kiyone squirmed around on her back, uncomfortable with the fast pace and the chill.
The branches on either side seemed to mesh around, the tree trunks soaring to heights that Isane dared not waste a breath looking up at. Vines hung from these branches, moss collected on the trunks, and a feeling of chilly dampness emanated from the forest. It was dark to either sides of the path, and Isane was beginning to regret not bringing a torch along. Kiyone was getting scared.
"Nee-chan?" A small finger poked her shoulder hesitantly as they rounded a bend in the forest. All the trees looked the same, all the vines hanging in the same way, and the branches, the shadows, the light from the night sky, the stars, they seemed to loom over the sisters.
"Where are we going, nee-chan? Are we going to find 'Tou-san and 'Kaa-san?"
"We're going to Otsu, Kiyone."
"Where's Otsu, nee-chan? Are 'Tou-san and 'Kaa-san there?"
"Otsu is like Edo, Kiyone. Otsu is big. Otsu will be safe. And we can look for 'Tou-san and 'Kaa-san from Otsu. We'll get a nice room with a nice view and then we'll play in the river, and there will be no worries, because Otsu is safe. They will not fight in Otsu. We will be safe there."
There was a short period of silence as Kiyone snuggled up to her older sister, curling into a ball as she rested her head on Isane's lap. "Nee-chan?"
"Can I sleep now?"
"Sweet dreams, Kiyone."
Isane reached to the pack for the tanto hidden within it, clutching it tightly in her hand as she fell into an uneasy sleep where nameless faceless soldiers screaming and crying haunted her dreams.
Fires burnt and screams echoed through stone corridors, there were loud clangs of metal, and she was running, running, still running. She was still running.
It was the Eleventh of October, 1600.
They resumed the run the next day, Isane's legs aching from the day before, and Kiyone now much more subdued.
The path did not seem to get any shorter, the forest any thinner, and the air any less oppressive. It seemed like they were running and running and running and that they were going nowhere. A subtle hint of fear crept it's way into Isane's heart, taking root and growing heavier with each step.
What if they were lost? What if they were going to be trapped in the forest forever? What if they ran out of food? What if they ran out of water? What if 'Tou-san went back and couldn't find them? What if…
Isane bit back the tears that threatened to well from her eyes. She was no little girl, no five or six years old. She was fourteen, and old enough to care for Kiyone, old enough to make sure that everything was alright, that everything would be okay.
And yet, somehow, Isane could not quite shake the feeling that she was not headed in the correct direction, that somehow, despite all the odds, remaining in Seki would have been a better idea. But that did not make sense at all.
Otsu was not only a city. Otsu had a castle, Otsu Castle, and it was this that was being controlled by the Tokugawa. She knew that. Everyone knew that General Kyogoku had his forces there and that the Tokugawa were on their side. And since everyone said that the Tokugawa were going to win, it was going to be safe in Otsu.
They were going to be safe in Otsu.
Isane and Kiyone crossed the gates of Otsu just as night fell, quickly making their way to the castle.
It seemed the name 'Kotetsu' was known within, and they quickly found lodgings within the castle.
Kiyone explored every nook and cranny of their room with delight, flicking at the walls with small fingers, nudging the futons with her feet and playing with the tatami mats of the floor.
Isane, on the other hand, could not help but feel apprehensive. Something felt queer. Something felt wrong, but she could not quite place it. The castle was oddly still, oddly quiet, and the tense air surrounding most of the soldiers she had approached for food should have cued her in to something.
But as it was, she was too tired to think.
The dreams of the nameless faceless soldiers returned, and in the distance, there was a small, small figure.
It looked like Kiyone.
And thus ended the Twelfth of October, 1600.
The Thirteenth of October, 1600 dawned, a bright clear red morning.
Isane was up before dawn as was her norm, bustling about scrounging for breakfast to go with the rice balls she had left.
Most of the soldiers were already awake, and some passed her small pieces of dried meat, others smiled wanly and went on their way, patrolling, patrolling, constantly patrolling.
She hurried back to the room.
Kiyone was half awake, tossing and turning in her futon as she rubbed at her eyes. A bright smile came to her face as she caught sight of Isane with breakfast.
Breakfast was a cheery affair, Kiyone making plans to go to the 'river which nee-chan said was going to be there', to splash around, to catch fish and play marbles. Isane wanted to point out that marbles didn't go with the river, but Kiyone seemed so adamant that there was no point in stopping her.
They finished breakfast quickly, and as they got ready for their excursion out of the castle, the rice paper door was hurriedly slid open.
A young soldier flushed red with sweat dripping down his forehead barged into the room, looking distraught, lost, confused and sad.
"Kyakujin-dono," he bowed, "My many apologies for this interruption, but it falls to me to inform you that the castle is under siege. My lord would advise you to remain calm and not panic. The castle will hold. Once more, my sincerest apologies that you have to endure such a disaster, kyakujin-dono."
He bowed once more and the door slid shut.
Isane sat there stunned.
They had just left Seki! They had left Seki to come here because it was going to be safe! It was going to be safe in Otsu! It was going to be safe because it was a castle and castles were always safe!
It could not be happening.
Standing up roughly, Isane marched to the door, wrenching it open, every inch the piece of mind to grab the kid by his scruffy collar and yell at him. This was a bad joke, a very, very bad joke. Such tastelessness!
She nearly collided with a company of close to twenty fully armored soldiers.
Staggering backwards into the room, Isane found herself gently swaying back and forth as she slid the door shut. It was all surreal.
Too surreal. Nothing seemed to be as it was.
What was going on?
What was going on?
The noises began, she could hear them, she could hear them echoing through the stone corridors, through the labyrinth of pathways that wound themselves around and within the castle.
She could hear the clang of metal, hear the faint screams that were carried down the corridors. Quickly pressing her hands over Kiyone's years, she ignored all the little girl's protests and quickly bundled them into the next room, just running and running away from the main corridor.
The rooms seemed to lead on forever, but Isane subconsciously counted five doors before they flung themselves out of the room and into the garden, coming face to face with five soldiers, this time wearing different armor.
With a cry, she took off towards the bamboo forest, running, running, running. They seemed to chase at first, or was it her imagination? Feet pattered against the path, she could not tell if they were hers or anyone else's. Kiyone was quiet, though trembling with fear, the little girl grabbing on tighter than she had ever done before.
And Isane ran, tearing a path through the vegetation, dashing across the gravel path and over the bridges, away, away, away.
In the shadows of the bamboo forest, she paused to catch her breath, the sheer stillness of the air striking fear deep into her heart. Were they here as well? Were they hiding in the shadows? Each rustling of the leaves, each movement of the bamboo, and Isane ran away from that. She ran, dodging and ducking and weaving through the stems.
She dared not stop, dared not stop to hear the silence that was punctuated only by the beating of her heart and the panting of her breath, that still eerie silence that was like the calm before the storm. She could almost see them stalking her, almost see them running after her, eyes gleaming, hands clenched tightly around their katana, why? Why? Why?
What had she ever done? What had Kiyone ever done?
Isane just ran, before she tripped over a shoot, tumbling roughly to the ground, somehow letting Kiyone go just at the right moment such that she landed on top of her older sister.
Sitting up abruptly, she picked Kiyone up and attempted to stand, only to look down in horror at her twisted and swelling ankle. A gash down her calf seemed to be the work of a sharp piece of gravel. Any attempts to stand were met not only with intense pain, but were also impossible, the joint giving way immediately.
Isane tried hopping, but in the closed space of the bamboo forest, hopping on the uneven ground, around the stems of the plants was close to impossible. She made three hops before collapsing to the ground once more.
Kiyone was close to tears by now, tears welling in her eyes as she gulped back sobs. The poor child, still trying to comfort her sister when they were both in such a predicament. Isane had no idea what to do now, she did not know what to do, and she just gathered Kiyone to her arms, the two of them sitting quietly, waiting.
What they were waiting for, Isane did not know. She was waiting for something, anything. Desperately hoping for someone to come and save them, for someone, anyone to turn up and wake them from this nightmare, she sat there quietly. As Kiyone's breathing evened out into slumber, Isane cast her glance up at the sky.
It was dark, dark like before a thunderstorm, but yet did not seem like a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms did not have flashes of red, or orange, ash did not fall from the skies.
The first falling piece of smoldering ember wrenched a gasp from Isane's mouth as she clutched Kiyone closer to her, taking care not to wake the child.
She could hear the crackling.
She could feel the heat drawing near.
She could see the orange-red glow of the fire.
Oh God, please, please, no.
Clutching Kiyone as tightly as she could, Isane noticed that the little girl seemed to be in a deep, deep slumber. Perhaps there was still one thing to thank the gods about then.
She stared straight at the flames, stared them down as they licked at the dry bamboo leaves on the ground, watched as they grew closer, mortified, petrified, but silent.
A choked cry tore itself from her lips as the fire inched towards her foot. Scurrying away as much as she could, Isane knew that it was futile. It was completely futile. There was no hope left, not for her, and not for Kiyone, and it was the latter that hurt her more.
Kiyone, oh Kiyone had such a future ahead of her, she had had so much to look forward to, so much to live, so much to learn, so much to laugh about.
It was unfair! It was unfair that everything was being taken away!
Strangely, Isane did not feel the fire, watching it detachedly as it crawled up her pant leg, watching it as it crept closer and closer to Kiyone.
While she was alive, she would not let any harm come to Kiyone. She had no choice, no choice at all.
Crying out and screaming for help at the top of her lungs, Isane thought she heard footsteps, she thought she saw a young man, beard cut short and hair untied but falling around his face in a way that she had never seen before.
A hand on her shoulder, and two eyes met hers.
Staring blankly back at the person who had just cursed and was beating at something, oh were those her legs? Isane could not quite fathom what was going on. She blinked as she looked at the soldier.
Huh, not Tokugawa.
The soldier had done something, there was no longer the ache in her legs, her ankle did not feel like it was there, and Isane did not want to look down to see. She looked the soldier straight into the eye, as he cried out in horror at something.
Oh, was that fire? Was it fire that was all around them? But it all felt so cold. And Kiyone, where was Kiyone? Why was Kiyone with him?
"Save me," she murmured, and when had she said that? It felt so different, she felt so different.
The flames licked at the soldier's feet, and he looked up at her half in despair and half in determination. Isane stared blankly back at him. There was nothing she could do. There was nothing she knew to do. Not anymore.
He drew his katana, and Isane knew what he was going to do.
She squeezed her eyes shut, squeezed them closed as she heard the flicking of the katana, the sheathing and then the preparation for the second draw.
She felt it, she felt something, for the first time since she had entered the bamboo fields, she felt it. It was cold, it was cold, very cold.
Isane opened her eyes at the last moment, looking up at the brave young soldier.
"Kotetsu Isane," she whispered before turning to where Kiyone had been, she dared not look, she dared not look and she was a coward, but still she dared not look, "Kotetsu Kiyone."
The soldier smiled a brief wan smile as he sank down beside her, breathing heavily and in short gasps. Blood leaked from the heart wound which Isane vaguely remembered to have also received.
The soldiers found three bodies in the forest that night, a male and two females. Mistaking them for a family, they dug a small grave, gathered the ashes, and placed them in together.
Thus ended the Thirteenth of October, 1600, Friday the Thirteenth.
Otsu Castle was attacked by Tachibana Muneshige and Tsukushi Hirokado. Eight days later, the Battle of Sekigahara was fought, with Tokugawa Ieyasu emerging as the victor. Coincidentally, Otsu Castle fell to the Mori on the 21st of October, 1600, that very same day. Tokugawa had won the Battle of Sekigahara, and in contrast, the loss of Otsu Castle was minor and insignificant. Some records of the time indicate that the local inhabitants brought picnic boxes and gathered at Mii-dera on Mount Hiei to observe the battle
Had the Kotetsu sisters not been in the castle, they would have survived.
AN: Kyakujin-dono means honored guest.
On historical facts:
All facts here are true, except for the last one. Whether Seki was untouched or not, I do not know. I could not find any information, so I will assume that it was untouched. It makes for more dramatic punch.
My apologies for not stating this earlier; this fic was inspired by the prompt of Isane from DelMarch, after I told her that I was in the mood for Tragedy.
Hoped you liked it,