The sword glistened in the sun as it arced through the air. Chop! A crate fell into pieces as the evasive runner dodged yet again. The runner quickened his pace as he saw the merchant ship Revilo ahead of him. But he was not finished yet. Three men, garbed in all black robes were sprinting after him. People scattered as the chase continued. The runner leaping through a huddle of trade stalls, knocking over apples and oranges. They poured over the floor, and as the ninjas came after him, one slipped and fell. His head connected with the cobbled ground, and he was out cold. The remaining two ninjas ran after him and suddenly they found themselves gaining on their target, because the runner had been accosted by two Barbour-guards. He shoved them off, but the damage was done, the ninjas were almost on him and, in despair, the runner pulled his curved sword from within his own clothes and swung viciously at his assailants. Then, merely 30 yards from the Revilo, his target, a battle ensued. A two against one. The crowds in the harbour now huddled around the edges, crouching behind crates, their eager eyes watching the display of swordsmanship. The battle moved slowly towards the ship, the runner skillfully ducking, weaving and parrying his attackers’ blows. He knew he could not beat them, but if he could get them near enough the ship, he may have an advantage.
And, how right he was. As they neared the Revilo, the runner flipped acrobatically onto the rungs which lined the edge of the huge ship. The ninjas, temporarily paralysed, stopped, and the runner kicked one of the swords into the air and caught it. Then, the ship cast off, very slowly. In desperation, the ninja with his sword jumped and caught hold of the edge of the ship. But he could not stay there. He was slipping, slowly, and then the runner, with a triumphant smile on his face kicked the straining fingers of the ninja. And with a cry, the robed figure fell into the sea.
There, on the shore, the last ninja stared after the retreating ship as it sped up. This was not over.
Lii Kazuko sunk into his bunk bed with a sigh of appreciation. This was more like it. After 3 months on the run from those persistent ninjas, he had finally lost them. But he knew it had been close. As he had vaulted over the side of the ship, he had had a brief moment when he thought what could of happened. And and it had all started 4 months ago in Nagoya, south-east Japan.
The year was 1874, and the emperor Okubu Toshimichi was in power. He was not a hard ruler, yet, nor was he an easy-going man. He ruled the country with power, but he heavily favoured the nobles who ruled the provinces. And it was this that made people dislike him. However, people never really considered doing anything about him, because, quite frankly, he had done nothing official wrong. But there were things like the treatment of workers on farms that went unnoticed and so, that was when the Sons of the Dragon was created. A secret society dedicated to the downfall of the Emperor. At first many disagreed with this society, as the Emperor’s deeds were not known to many, and certainly all the nobles supported him. But then as the Sons of the Dragon started to expose the emperor’s true evilness, things started to speed up. Everyone had been content to ignore the small things, like tax going up, but when the Emperor ordered his men to march through Nagoya and kick out all the locals who lived there, capture some as slaves and burn their houses; that was when people started switching sides.
And so it was that many nobles started secretly supporting the SOTD. They would never openly declare their support for them, but they were always ready to hide a fugitive or supply food or even weaponry. The movement of the SOTD increased in size, and by then nearly all of the country was riddled with the SOTD. It was like an undercover rebellion. But, our story starts in Nagoya, the day Emperor Okubu ordered his men to plunder the town.
It was a cold day in Nagoya and Lii was up early once more. He stumbled down the cold-cobbled streets of his beloved hometown, towards the well where he drew water each morning. He wore a thin linen tunic, but in this weather, it was normally more than enough to keep you warm. But today, everything seemed different. Colder, silent, still. And as Lii lowered the bucket down into the well, he shivered violently, and paused, suddenly frightened. Then, he looked up at the sky, and saw clouds. But not any old clouds. These were storm clouds, dark and billowing, threatening rain. And then it started. Droplets, plip, plop. Slowly, the quickly and then a torrent or water, and Lii was sprinting back towards his house. As he ran the wooden houses on either side of him, were now obscured and the ground below him had become slippery and as he pushed his door open he noticed dripping water from the ceiling above him. It had not used to be like this. The Government would repair your houses to a certain degree, but ever since those Sons of the Dragon had started their subtle war against the Emperor, conditions had got harder.
But then again, maybe the SOTD had a point. The Emperor was certainly not the nicest of men. Everyone in the country had heard the rumours of the conditions the workers were in, in the North. But no one dare spoke of them. The Emperor had ears and eyes everywhere.
An hour later the rain had finally stopped and Lii could return to the well to collect water. People were now venturing out of their houses. Lii noticed that there was none of the old friendliness in the air as there had been for many years. The secret war had sapped the whole country of resources and confidence. Many friends had been pulled apart because their allegiances were different to each other. Some thought the emperor was scum, others hated the SOTD. Lii was not sure where he himself stood. His friend Gensai had run off with the SOTD after cursing Lii for his “loyalty” to the Emperor. Gensai had not listened to Lii when he explained he was unsure whose side he was.
The last Lii had heard, Gensai and his SOTD friends had been caught on the run in Southern Japan, whether Gensai had got away, Lii did not know. But the future was black.
Lii’s family were very lazy, and as he looked through the veiled bamboo-curtain he saw his parents still fast asleep. They made him do all the hard work, without much reward, but at least he had a home. His brother Sandali had angered his parents by refusing to work as hard as they commanded. He was now exiled from the family, although Lii still went to see him occasionally when his parents were not looking.. Sandali would encourage Lii to join him in the forest where he lived. Lii had considered it, but since Sandali has joined the SOTD, he had been too scared.
Lii was just sitting down to serve himself some oats for breakfast when he heard a shout from the outskirts of the village. Then a scream, followed by more similar noises and then the sound of fire. Lii jumped up quickly and raced to the door his heart pounding. What on earth had caused this noise? He plunged through the door and looked left down the long dusty street. What he saw was horrific. Soldiers, the emperor’s of course were flooding down the street pursuing villagers. Some hacked at the houses with huge metal swords, others lit houses up with burning torches. People were fleeing grabbing what they could and running. Lii was petrified momentarily, and then he knew that he too had to run. Soon he was caught up with the rest of them, he would escape! And then he remembered. His parents. He spun round and found himself pushed violently into the mud by a fellow villager. Then he pounded back to his house, dodging others, and back towards the danger. Then he saw his house, 30 metres away and now that was about the distance between him and the soldiers. Suddenly to Lii’s horror, one pushed open the door to his house and drew his swords as he entered.
Lii instinctively hopped over a barrel lying at the side of the road and hid from the majority of the soldiers. About a quarter however remained plundering and pillaging the houses, and one of those houses was his. What would they do to his father and mother? Two of them had gone inside. And then he heard his mother screaming as Lii sneaked around the back of the house. He peered through the back and window, and what he saw would remain with him forever. He did not know what had made the soldier do it, but he knew he would never see his parents again…alive.
Then, a different emotion overtook him and he darted through the window past his dead parents and grabbed a large hunting knife off the wall. Hearing the disturbance, the two soldiers, who were leaving turned. Lii plunged the knife into the first soldier, and in his rage he hurled himself into the other. The first screamed in pain and Lii stabbed his knife again and again and again, and he was no more. Then the other regained his footing and this was when Lii realised that he could be one of the greatest swordsmen to live. The soldier swung his blade at Lii, but Lii with his comparatively tiny knife parried it beautifully sending the soldiers weapon gracefully through the window. It embedded itself in the earth outside and he could just see it handle sticking up above the window. Then he turned to the soldier. Fear was written all over his adversary’s face. But for some reason, now Lii had calmed down, he knew that to kill in cold blood was wrong. He had always had a temper, and his temper had made him kill a man. It had always been like that. But this had gone too far. He just let the man go. Just like that. And the soldier knew a gift when he saw one and fled backwards out of the house, wary of Lii’s dagger held menacingly in his hands.
And then he sunk to his knees. And tears flooded out. His world, although not altogether a happy one had still been a life. But now, his parents had been snatched away from him, and his village overrun. There was nothing much left for him here.
Three days later and Lii was traveling through the forest to try and find his brother Sandali. The soldiers had all but destroyed his village with his house being one of the only houses left standing. That was a poignant reminder, that he had put up a fight to the evil Emperor’s men.
Lii now knew for certain where his allegiances lay. The Sons of the Dragon was his future. And now he felt foolish to of rejected his brother and Gensai his greatest friend, who may now even of been dead. He would not make the same mistakes again. All that was in his heart was revenge. Yet deep down he knew that it would always be wrong to take a life, even if that person was a truly evil one.
He wondered if ever the opportunity came, would he be prepared cold-bloodedly to kill an unarmed man? He knew he was not like that. But what he did know was, that Japan was a doomed country unless someone did something about the Emperor. And that was what the SOTD offered. And he would do his part.
But for now he did not have a clue exactly where his brother was. All he knew was “the woods” which just so happened to be 15 miles wide and 7 miles long. Also, his brother might have fled, because of the soldiers. If his brother had gone then he did not know where to go.