The duo cautiously and slowly made passage through the cloying, hilly wood and passed into a narrow clearing where the land dipped into a long, sparsely covered dale through which ran a thin, babbling brook. To the south, a well-trod path was observable, which stretched from the edge of the stream into the far distance of the vegetal enclosure. Suddenly there came the sound of bristling brush whereupon both men took cover behind the nearest tree, slowly peeking out from behind it to behold a young man with a merry expression and a jug slung over his shoulder. The stranger knelt, filled the jug and then returned back up the trail.
Silently as possible Akechi and Haru crossed the stream and followed the young man along the narrow footpath through the wood which swiftly let out into a wide clearing where lay a fenced and ramshackle village that hummed with the sounds of arduous labor.
“We are in luck, Haru.”
“Or the converse.”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Aye. I’d kill for a bed of sheets and down.”
“Should our writ prove insufficient persuasion, you might just have to, old friend.”
The water-bearer paused before the gate where shortly, a guard emerged from over the top of the rough-hewn parapets. A short conversation ensued and the guard nodded and gave a signal for the great double doors which secured the portal to be opened.
After the water-bearer had vanished within the fortifications and the doors re-sealed, Haru and Akechi set out towards the veiled hamlet. Akechi greeted the guard with a cheery wave.
“Hail, stalwart. Your armour marks you captain. You are, are you not?”
“I am. And you are?”
“Ayumu Akechi and this is Haru Fujiyoshi,” he removed a scroll from his inner coat pocket and, unfurling it, held the artifact up for the guardsman to see, “We’ve come from the far side of Sōzō-ryoku seeking employ.”
The captain placed his palms upon the parapet and gazed down on the ensign upon the scroll, written in the golden ink characteristic of Lord Tenchi’s loyalist scribes – too costly to buy and nigh impossible to steal.
The captain gestured towards Haru, “You look a friend to battle. But you—Akechi, was it?”
“You do not look the part of a fighter.”
Two of the guards along the top of the wall sniggered.
“If you find me such a doubtful specimen, why not test me, sir?”
The captain was taken aback and stood for a moment in silence with a slight furrow in his brow as his subordinates looked on expectantly. Unwilling to look fool or coward before his men, he gave the signal to open the gate.