The steady drip – drip – drip of snow falling from the overhead branches drenched the ronin’s shoulders. He hunched his cloak closer and peered through the pale mist that shrouded the white-rimmed trees. Was that…?
It was. A dark cottage squatted in a small clearing like a huge slaughtered boar. The absence of smoke implied that it was uninhabited. Perhaps the place might offer him shelter.
As he trudged closer, dragging his weary boots through the ankle-deep snow, he could make out a vague shape in front of the cottage. Closer, he saw that it was a large box laid on a very low table. The building itself looked odd, with tiny windows and an extremely small door. The ronin would have to bend double to enter. He paused by the strange box. It was fully six feet long and covered with snow.
He raised a gauntleted hand and swept away some of the snow. Gasping a curse, he took a step back in shock, his hand instinctively reaching into his cloak for the hilt of his katana. Ice sprayed from his boots as he struggled to retain his balance. His breath fogged the frozen air.
Looking about, he saw no movement, no life. The forest was as still as death. He moved back to the box and swiftly swept all of the snow away. The top was made of glass, though this was not what had caused him to spring back. His alarm had been caused by the contents of the box, now fully revealed.
She was exquisitely beautiful, skin as white as the snow he had just swept away, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony. Her eyes were closed, her shapely body unmoving beneath her simple shift. The glass coffin, for such it must be, had likely been placed outside to keep it cold.
The girl was clearly dead, and yet her features stirred such feelings within the ronin’s chest that he felt an irresistible desire to stroke the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck. He searched for the fastening on the lid.
A dark ball of fury bulleted into him, knocking him sprawling in the snow. A student of battojutsu, the ronin was back on his feet in an instant, his sword slicing through the air exactly where his opponent would be standing. It cut only the air, however, passing over the head of his attacker. His assailant was hooded and, incredibly, stood no more than three feet tall. He carried no weapon.
“You are not welcome, intruder,” growled the dwarf.
“Leave this place,” came another voice from behind. The ronin whipped round to see another dwarf, poised to attack him from the other side. More dwarves, similarly hooded, stepped out of the trees until he was circled by seven samurai, all dwarves.
“Why should not we kill you, intruder?” the first dwarf said. The ronin considered. He would tell the truth, as always.
“Because I love her.”