Kaze no Shiro Kazenoshiro Banner



This section of Kaze no Shiro is no longer supported and is meant for archive purposes only. Please go back to main page.


 

 

Guardians By Shawn Carman

Decades ago, somewhere in the Phoenix wilderness

In the near total darkness of a moonless night, a woman and her child lay bound and helpless in a bamboo cage tucked among the rocks of Kiken na Roka, which many called Treacherous Pass. The earth around them was stained with the blood and corpses of the slaughtered Imperial Caravan. Bloodspeaker cultists moved around rapidly on the crest of a nearby hill, erecting some sort of altar. The young woman could guess what they intended to sacrifice her and her son to whatever foul masters they served. Though she was unquestionably afraid, she found that she feared little for her own life. Hochiahime closed her eyes and prayed to the fortunes that her son might survive.

When she opened her eyes again, she saw a man crouched in the shadows nearby. He was not one of the Bloodspeakers, just a dirty man in the rough clothes of a hunter. He wore a katana and wakizashi at his hip a ronin. He quickly glanced around the camp, gestured for her to be silent, then removed the binding from her face.

"Forgive me, Empress," the ronin whispered. "I would never dare touch you if the circumstances were different."

"You apologize needlessly," she whispered back.

"The cultists are everywhere," he said, opening the cage and beginning to untie her bonds. "We must get away from here."

"No," she said, pulling her hands away. "I cannot move swiftly through these mountains. They would hunt us down. Run from here, return to the capital. Tell my husband where to find these men so they may be punished"

"I cannot leave you and your son to die, Empress," he said with a scowl. "Let me take the boy."

"They will find you," Hochiahime said. "They hunted a hundred men to their deaths with relentless tenacity. You would only die as well. Run, so that someone may know what has happened here."

Disappointment was evident in the ronin's eyes. He glanced at the five-year-old boy sleeping next to the Empress and sat in silence for a few moments, then disappeared into the night. After a few long moments he reappeared, this time carrying a heavy burden.

The ronin gingerly placed his burden on the ground next to the Empress. She saw that it was a child, the same age as Sotorii. The boy looked up at her quietly with serious eyes.

"What is this?" she asked.

"My son, Kyoden," the ronin replied.

"I told you to run, ronin," she said urgently. "There is nothing here but death."

"I cannot abandon you," he said, kneeling before her.

"You have no choice," she said urgently. "If the Bloodspeakers find me missing, they will scour the mountains until they find you. You cannot escape their black magic."

"Then let me rescue the child," the ronin said. "I will replace him with my own son. By the time they realize the difference, I will be in Otosan Uchi."

"Your son will die," the Empress said."

"Then he will die serving the Empire," the ronin replied.

Hochiahime had no words at first, so moved was she by the monumental sacrifice of this simple man, and she felt the pain he kept suppressed. Tears rolled down her cheeks, both for this stranger and for the children she would never see. She reached out and caressed his face.

"Live," she said. "Take my son to his father. Tell them to mourn me, and the child I would have borne."

The ronin nodded mutely, his eyes wet. He lifted the Emperor's heir and favored his son with one last look, then turned to leave. Just before he was too far away, he glanced back over his shoulder. "Please forgive me," he said.

She was uncertain whether he spoke to her or to his son. She said nothing.

With that, he disappeared into the darkness once more.

Hochiahime waited, listening for any sign that the Bloodspeakers had discovered his flight. A guard arrived a few moments later and glanced over the prisoners, but did not seem to notice that the children had been switched. After an hour's time, she finally closed her eyes and breathed a shaky sigh of relief.

A realization came to the Empress suddenly, and she reached into a secret pocket within her obi. She withdrew a small object of jade and gold. The Empress' Seal, used to issue any decrees necessary when the Emperor was indisposed or if she had need to conduct personal business. The chop had gone virtually unchanged for centuries, an ancient symbol of her position. Though she would still die, she would not let such a treasure fall into the hands of the Bloodspeakers.

Hochiahime tilted her head and listened carefully. In the quiet night, she could hear a small brook that wound its way through the pass's easternmost edge. It was not far from here. Silently offering a quick prayer, the Empress clumsily threw the seal toward the brook as best she could despite her bonds. She cursed when she heard a quiet crack of metal against stone, but then the following splash filled her with some sense of relief.

One day it would be found. Such things always were.

Ten years ago, the Phoenix lands

Daidoji Hohiro lay motionless in the tall grass, studying the chasm below. He had not moved in over two hours. He was prepared to remain in place for days, if necessary. His training as a Harrier had prepared him for exactly that, and inwardly the young man was delighted at the chance to prove his worth so soon after his gempukku. His appointment to the Imperial Legion had come as quite a surprise, but a welcome one. It seemed that the Sixth Legion's commander was a Doji of sufficient rank to be aware of his family's skills in certain areas, and he had requested "scouts" to assist his forces. Hohiro was among those selected by the sensei at Shiro Giji.

Now Hohiro and his friend Iwane were with the Sixth Legion, carefully patrolling the southernmost regions of Phoenix lands for any sign of advance scouts or raiding parties from the Yobanjin. Several tribes of the barbarians had united and swept south from the mountains to lay siege to the Phoenix lands. The two Daidoji had been permitted to act independently of other scout units, doubtless another advantage offered by their patron, and had tracked a small band of barbarian scouts to this area. It was only a matter of time now before the invaders were dealt with.

There. There was movement at the pass leading into the valley. Technically, this region belonged to no clan, but the Phoenix had always aided Imperial forces in patrolling it, and most considered it an extension of the Agasha provinces. The Yobanjin unrest in the Isawa and Asako lands, however, had drawn away every available Shiba bushi in the Empire, it seemed, and there were few free forces left for such a minor and unimportant area, making it an ideal avenue of infiltration. Exactly as the Yobanjin scouts were doing now.

The barbarians were as Hohiro had imagined they would be. They were short and squat, wearing fur to keep the autumn chill from their bones. They did not carry daisho, but strange, wide-bladed swords that were adorned with rings along the back. They moved cautiously into the valley, spreading out and covering one another well with the large, wooden crossbows they bore. Hohiro and Iwane were familiar with such items from their training, of course, but most samurai would not recognize them. Rokugani armor offered almost no protection from such weapons. The way these men walked, it was clear that they were hunters and warriors. There were ten of them. It would be difficult to take them without allowing escape, but with the element of surprise it could be done.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Hohiro began reaching for the yumi that lay at his side. He sensed Iwane doing the same, but he never took his eyes off of the barbarians. They were just now coming into range of the bows, and Hohiro wanted to wait until they were well within before firing. When they crossed the stream, then the Daidoji could attack without fear of their prey escaping.

The barbarians reached the stream and began to cross. One stopped, however, and reached down into the water. The man held it aloft and said something to his comrades, who turned back to him then promptly fell from his horse into the stream, an arrow sprouting from his neck. Hohiro turned to Iwane, but the other Crane had not yet fired. He glanced up and looked around the valley walls, seeking answers. There, atop the opposite wall. A Tsuruchi, a magistrate by the look of her. She had stumbled across the Yobanjin and opened fire.

Cursing his luck, Hohiro rose immediately and fired at the raiders, who were already turning to flee. Between the two Crane and the Tsuruchi, several raiders fell, but the others managed to escape their range before they could be brought down. The young harrier cursed and ran toward where his horse had been tied. It would surely be a miracle if they were able to catch the last of them now.

Three months ago, somewhere north of Rokugan

The crisp mountain air definitely did not agree with Jotaro. He frowned in irritation as the icy winds whistled through the openings in his armor, the silken clothing beneath doing little to cut the chill. Doubtless the environment was intended to put the Rokugani ill at odds in hopes of diminishing their abilities. Inwardly, Jotaro felt certain such a thing would avail them very little. He was here only because Doji Kurohito had insisted. It had been difficult to explain to Toturi Miyako why he needed temporary leave from the First Legion, but in the end the word of his Champion was sufficient for the young commander. Jotaro almost wished that she had argued the point for old time's sake; he would miss the stubborn Monkey. Kurohito's wrath might be somewhat less unpleasant than the long trip, wretched conditions, and untrustworthy encounter he was about to endure. After consideration, however, Jotaro reflected on the few occasions he had actually witnessed his Champion's anger aroused. All things being equal, this was probably the more pleasant of the two.

"Doji Jotaro-sama." The voice came from somewhere amid the rocks, but Jotaro could not determine where. The voice possessed a strange accent, but sounded like the dialect the Daidoji used. "I am grateful that you could come."

Jotaro's hand rested lightly on the hilt of his blade. His posture did nothing to betray his readiness to draw and strike in a heartbeat. "You owe me no thanks," he countered. "It is my duty and privilege to obey lord Kurohito's instructions." After a moment's consideration, he added "No matter how odd the circumstances."

There was laughter, then. It was a dry, rasping sound, one without any hint of humor or good intent behind it. "I suppose that answers many of my questions about you, Jotaro-sama."

"I am overcome with joy to be of service," Jotaro replied dryly. "Reveal yourself, if you please. If you wished to play games you should have sent for an artisan, not a magistrate."

A bushi appeared from amid the stones to Jotaro's left. The side, Jotaro noticed, where it would have been most difficult to turn his blade. Only a second or two delay, of course, but still delayed. The warrior was a canny one. "I am Daidoji Hohiro, Jotaro-sama. I fear I am responsible for bringing you here, but you have my utmost assurances that it is absolutely necessary."

Jotaro stared blankly at the dirty, scarred man. "Daidoji?" he asked.

"Indeed," Hohiro answered. He frowned and glanced down at his battered, oft-patched armor and the piecemeal clothing he wore. "Why do you question my name? Do I not look like a Crane? Is this not the latest fashion?"
Jotaro frowned in concern. "How long have you been in these mountains, Hohiro-san?"

"Truthfully, I am not entirely certain," the Daidoji answered. "The seasons are very similar here, and it is difficult to track the passage of time. Is the year still 1161 by the Isawa Calendar?"

"1165," Jotaro corrected. "Toturi III's seventh year as Emperor of Rokugan is about to begin."

"Ah. Eight years, then."

"Eight years?" Jotaro asked, dumbfounded. "Have you been alone all that time?"

"Not always, but mostly," the warrior answered. "I have a sacred task to fulfill, and I believe I have finally done so. But I needed someone to assist me, and that duty has fallen to you, Jotaro-sama. Time is short, however. Please come with me, and follow my lead as best you are able. I will do as much of the talking as I can."

Jotaro nodded and followed the other man as he set off across the mountain path at a trot. He moved across the stones like he was born to them, though it was considerably more difficult for Jotaro. The two trekked nearly half a mile to a small plateau. The magistrate could make out a lone cooking fire atop the plateau, and wondered what might await them there.

Whatever Jotaro might have expected, it certainly was not a band of Yobanjin barbarians dressed in crude leather armor and thick fur cloaks. It was only the presence of Hohiro, waving Jotaro's hand away from his blade, that kept the magistrate from charging the men and cutting them down. The two Crane stood waiting until finally one of the barbarians approached them. The man stood closer than Jotaro would have liked, looking at him expectantly. Finally, he spoke. "Are you the one called Yasuki?" he asked in halting Rokugani.

Hohiro looked at Jotaro. "The Emerald Champion, sama. He has been looking forward to meeting the Emerald Champion."

"I am not," Jotaro said. "I am Doji Jotaro, of the First Legion." The magistrate saw Hohiro wince. Apparently he had been expected to lie, but there were some things a samurai would not do. Perhaps Hohiro had forgotten that.

"You said Yasuki would come!" the Yobanjin said angrily to Hohiro.

"Be at ease, Bajan," Hohiro answered. "Yasuki Hachi is a powerful warlord in our land. He could not come, but has sent Jotaro in his stead. The First Legion he spoke of are the Empire's finest warriors."

"I do not believe you!" Bajan shouted. He moved like the wind, holding a knife to Hohiro's throat. Jotaro's blade was halfway from its saya when Hohiro stopped him.

"There is no reason for concern," he said calmly. "Bajan is showing his men that he is in control, but they cannot hear our conversation if we keep our voices low. And besides, Bajan here knows very well that he wouldn't survive more than a few moments after me." The Daidoji gently pressed forward with the dagger he held in his off hand, the blade of which was inserted masterfully between two plates in the barbarian's armored midsection. "I apologize for misleading you, Bajan-sama," Hohiro said more clearly, so the others could hear. He bowed his head as best he could. "Now, shall we continue?"

Bajan withdrew the blade and stepped backwards, sheathing it. "If you are powerful as Hohiro says," he offered, "then you can aid the Mountain Wind tribe as Yasuki could, perhaps." He looked at Jotaro expectantly. "Do you have the power to speak with your lord's name?"

Jotaro's eyes narrowed. Kurohito's orders had included words to that effect, but he had no intention of abusing that privilege. "I do," he answered.

Bajan nodded. "We have heard of Yasuki, the one who killed many Son of Mountain warriors on the distant island you call Aramasu's Pride. He is a man of honor and law. If you are his servant, then you too must be such a man, yes?"

"I am," Jotaro said with more confidence.

"Then the Mountain Wind tribe wishes to bargain with you and your tribe for an alliance," Bajan said. "We are a powerful tribe, but we have suffered at the hands of those you call Blood Speakers. They move through our lands to avoid your men of law, and we were greatly wounded when they brought the blood rain upon our lands."

Jotaro glanced at Hohiro. He had not realized how far the Rain of Blood extended. How badly had it affected these simple folk, he wondered? "I am sorry for your loss, Bajan," he said sincerely.

"The Mountain Wind tribe will serve your Crane tribe," Bajan continued. "We will offer any aid we can against the Blood Speakers, and gather information on their movement when we can. In return for our service, you will help us protect ourselves."

Jotaro frowned. "How can we aid your people?"

"Food," the chieftain answered at once. "Weapons. Perhaps a handful of warriors like Hohiro. Nothing complicated, only necessities of life. With these things, we will not fear the other tribes. We will not fear the Blood Speakers. We will be strong again, and we will make certain no other tribes threaten your Empire."

The magistrate shook his head. "This thing you ask is not a simple matter."

"No," Bajan agreed. "We offer this as well." He held forth a small hide sack. The barbarian clearly wanted Jotaro to take it, but he was repulsed at the notion of touching dead flesh. Only the wild-eyed stare of Hohiro convinced him to do so. Gingerly opening the sack, he withdrew a small object of gold and green, slightly chipped on one side. "Is this&" he began. "This is the Empress's Seal," he said. "This has been lost since the death of Hantei XXXVIII's wife, the Empress Hochiahime."

"It was found in your land during the war between our people ten years ago," Bajan explained. "It came into my possession some time ago, and I had heard of Hohiro's quest for this item." He looked at Jotaro carefully. "Will your lord be pleased with its return?"

"He will," Jotaro said confidently. "He will be most pleased." He offered the barbarian a short bow. "In the name of my lord, I accept your offer, Bajan. The Mountain Wind tribe is now under the protection of the Crane Clan."

Bajan smiled widely and uttered a fierce whoop of triumph.

The Imperial Court was unusually silent. It was not rare for a Clan Champion to address the court, but it was still uncommon enough that most were still impressed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding such incidents. Today, it was the Crane Champion Doji Kurohito who stood before the Emperor and his bride to be, Akodo Kurako. The Champion was radiant in his exquisite clothing, and his wife Akiko was in attendance as well. Most within the court had the presence of mind to recognize that Akiko's attendance despite the enormity of her duties in both Crane and Phoenix lands hinted at something truly important.

"Kurohito, my friend," the Emperor said in his typical guarded tones. "I am much pleased to see you. It has been too long since you were last a guest in my court."

"For me as well, my liege," Kurohito offered. "It is my eternal regret that my duties so often keep me absent from your court, but I am overjoyed to oversee in your name the lands you have so graciously granted my clan."

"We all have our duties," the Emperor answered. "What brings you before the court?"

"I wish to present a gift to your future Empress, my lord," Kurohito said, bowing deeply before Kurako, who stood near the Emperor's throne. "It has been far too long sine an Empress sat upon the throne in times of peace. Only your noble mother, Kaede-sama, has done so within the recent past, and I fear her time of rule was hardly peaceful."

"Unfortunately true, for much of her life," the Emperor said. "What gift would you offer?"

Kurohito paused for a moment. "Perhaps I was incorrect in my description, my lord. What I offer is not truly a gift, for it is already the rightful possession of our Empress, and I am greatly pleased to be able to return it to her." The Crane Champion knelt and offered a small box to the Empress, who took it with a curious expression.

Kurako gently opened the box and raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Is this the Empress' Seal?"

"It is," Kurohito answered. "The Crane have sought it for many years, and finally discovered it among the Yobanjin tribes to the north."

"My thanks, Kurohito-san," Kurako said, "but I cannot accept this. It is a treasure of the old Hantei Dynasty. Let your clan keep it as a symbol of your faithfulness to them."
"Ah but we cannot keep it, my lady," Kurohito said with a small smile. "It has been ritually purified in the holiest of all Asahina temples, and Asahina Itoeko tells me that the kami that dwells within it sings with joy at its return to the new Imperial Dynasty. I cannot disappoint such a steadfast spirit."

"Are you so certain?" Kurako replied. "The former Hantei brides were Crane; it knows your people well. I would think that it would find greater joy in your esteemed house than in that of this humble Lion."

"My lady honors me," Kurohito said with a bow. "And yet I insist. The Righteous Emperor has honored his father's clan of descent by choosing a bride from among their number, but let the Crane honor their ancient agreement with the Hantei Dynasty in some small way by returning this artifact to your care."

"With so sincere an offer how can I but accept?" Kurako replied.

Kurohito reverently handed the case to an Imperial Guardsman, who gave it in turn to Kurako. "I only wish that it could have been found sooner," Kurohito said, "so the Emperor's beloved mother could have wielded the mark of station to which she was rightfully entitled."

"History has shown your clan's devotion to the Empress," the Emperor replied. "Some think it only because most were Crane by birth, but your actions today prove differently. I offer you the chance to continue to prove that devotion, if you wish it."

"Always, my lord," Kurohito answered at once. "What would you have of the Crane?"

"Train a new Empress' Guard," Naseru answered. "It would ease an Emperor's troubled mind to know that the finest Crane warriors were ever watchful of his wife's safety."

Kurohito knelt "At once, Emperor." He rose, the knelt again before the Empress. "You shall have protection finer than any in the Empire, my lady."

"Thank you, Kurohito," she answered. "I am certain that I will."

Jotaro stood in the doorway. His things were ready, and he was about to leave to rejoin the First Legion. Something had compelled him to check on Hohiro, first, however. Ever since the two Crane had returned, the magistrate had worried about the wayward Daidoji warrior. So long removed from Rokugan, would it be possible for him to simply return with no difficulty? "I see you are preparing to leave as well," he said.

Hohiro looked up from where he was fiercely shoving his belonging into a new travel sack. "Yes," he said roughly.

"I take it you aren't pleased, then," Jotaro replied after a moment.

"Did you hear?" Hohiro said, his voice full of a quiet anger. "Did you hear who has been appointed to lead the Empress Guard?"

"Doji Reju," Jotaro answered. "He is among the clan's finest warriors, a legend at the Battle of Oblivion's Gate. Also, he was given a vision relating to the Emperor by lord Togashi Hoshi. It is in the Emperor's best interests that Reju be close by."

"A vision?" Hohiro spat. "A vision he cannot remember."

Jotaro shrugged. "Reju was trained by the Dragon Clan, and the Dragon are strange. It will return when the time is right. Kurohito is confident that Reju is the right choice."
"And me. What have you heard of me?"

The magistrate frowned. "I had heard you will be given command of a small unit to return to aid the Yobanjin," he answered. "I thought you would be pleased."

"Pleased?" Hohiro demanded, his voice rising. "I spent eight years in those miserable, filthy mountains. Eight years among those filthy outlander swine! I never want to see them again! I should lead the Guard& not that one-armed failure."

"Be cautious," Jotaro said quietly. Only his respect for the old warrior's accomplishments prevented him from drawing his blade then and there. "Such words are dangerous."

"You do not know of danger, Doji," Hohiro said, his voice quiet again. "I refuse my new appointment."

"You cannot refuse Kurohito," Jotaro replied.

"Then let him stop me," Hohiro said. He picked up the bag and brushed past Jotaro. "For your sake, I hope we do not meet again. I have no wish to kill you."

Jotaro watched the old Daidoji leave without another word. It seemed that the time spent among the Yobanjin protecting the Empire from barbarians had left little within him that could still be considered samurai. Such was the price of duty.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!