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By Brian Yoon

Edited by Fred Wan

The sun rose in the horizon, framed by the nearby mountains. The morning light cast a beautiful glow over everything. Peasants and merchants stepped out of their homes, ready to start their daily work. At Kennon Gakka, a castle in the Lion lands, the day had already begun.

The samurai from the Lion Clan were considered to be some of the most ferocious and skilled warriors in all the land, and they never let their martial aspect grow dull. Dozens of them had already gathered in the courtyard, engaged in their morning kata. They moved as one as they went through a series of highly ritualized maneuvers that emulated the movements a warrior uses in combat. As the samurai worked through the movements of the kata, they readied the body and spirit for the day to come.

Akodo Shunori stepped out of the barracks and rubbed his tired, red eyes. He shook his head and took a look around his surroundings. He had had no rest the previous night, but he was keyed up and ready to face the world. Watching the formation of practicing warriors filled him with an inner strength, as if he were out there with the rest of them. Though he was greatly pleased, no emotion crossed his face. He was a quiet, solemn man who kept a tight rein on his emotions. Those who liked him called him reserved, and those who snickered at his attitude called him dour.

The sight of thirty men moving in unison never failed to inspire the young man. He had read countless details of hundreds of battles, filled with tactical brilliance and astonishing maneuvering. The cleverness of the generals of old impressed him, but the simple beauty of samurai working as one unit fascinated him the most. The beauty of war truly came from the actions of samurai on the front lines of battle. He shook his head and turned away. He could not stand there and gawk as if he were an idle fool. He turned away to the rest of the castle. Surely he could find something to do before it came time to fulfill his duties.

"Shunori-kun!" came a shout from behind him, and he turned back toward the gathering. The samurai had finished the kata and were beginning to disperse. A samurai-ko ran out of the crowd and briskly headed toward him. She was young, barely out of her coming-of-age gempukku ritual, and visibly filled with enthusiasm and zest for life that could not be contained. She came to a halt next to the young Akodo and grinned. Her happiness was infectious, and Shunori could not resist smiling back at his friend.

"Good morning, Shunori-kun," she said. "How do you feel? You look like you did not rest at all last night."

"Good morning, Takeko-chan," Shunori said sheepishly. "I"m afraid the excitement was too much for me. My mind would not let me sleep. Instead I prepared all night so that I would not make any mistakes."

Matsu Takeko wiped the sweat off her brow then shook her head. "Do not be so nervous, Shunori-kun. You have not changed a bit. I have known you since we were both toddlers, and you never fail to obsess over every detail. It is a simple patrol. You have served on many such patrols. You will do fine."

"It may be a simple patrol," Shunori countered, "but this will mark my first as commander. My superiors will make note of how I perform out of training. I am leading samurai who have been serving the Lion armies for many years, whereas I held my gempukku last year! How could I not worry? I will be responsible for the actions of every samurai that comes with me."

"All that means is that you will take credit for all the glory I will earn with my heroism!" she said, grinning. "Shunori-kun, you are a fine samurai and you will be a fine commander. You have certainly studied long enough for it." She raised an eyebrow. "Sometimes I wonder if you have trained to become a warrior or a librarian."

Shunori's face flushed. She was the only one who could draw such emotions out of him. "At least I will not be bored with you to keep me company, Takeko-chan. I always appreciate a good jester."

She tilted her head back and laughed out loud, and Shunori could not help but feel slightly relieved.

It was, as she said, a simple patrol. Shunori and two dozen Lion samurai made their way down the road that led away from the city. Shunori and all the men under his command knew the route well, so the group moved together without comment. A single samurai traveled a few minutes ahead of the rest of the group to warn them of any signs of trouble. Shunori and his men would travel along the road for several days until they reached the castle Shiro Matsu. They traveled through the land on the watch for enemies, bandits, and other criminals. Though they were close to the border of the Scorpion Clan lands, Shunori was not worried. The treacherous Scorpion lived on the other side of the mountains. The mountain range was impassable to all but the most dedicated, and the known paths through it were nowhere near them.

As expected, nothing extraordinary occurred during the first two days. Shunori gave only simple directions to his men and allowed them to do what came naturally without supervision. Peasants moved out of the way and bowed when they saw the patrol. Shunori knew that they were content to see the warriors protecting their land. The second day was long and uneventful, and the patrol passed by only a few people. On the second night, they stopped at a small farming village, and Shunori could feel some of the tension leave his body.

When the sun rose again, Shunori and his men began their preparations to start on their journey once more. He untied his horse and began to prepare him for the rest of the journey. He looked up as another samurai moved her horse close to his. He was unsurprised to see that it was Takeko. He nodded at her.

"So eager to start this morning?" she said.

"If we leave soon, we can arrive at Shiro Matsu before nightfall," he replied. "I think it would be best to finish our patrol on time."

She smiled at him. "You look refreshed this morning. Have you finally put your foolish worries aside?"

He opened his mouth to respond. The distant sound of a galloping horse reached his ears, and he quickly looked down the road. The scout he had sent out was rushing back to him, and that could mean nothing good.

"Perhaps you spoke too hastily," he said, then moved forward to meet his man. Takeko moved with him, standing at his shoulder.

The scout was an older samurai, face lined with age and experience. When he reached the pair, he quickly dismounted and gave a short bow.

"What is it, Sato-san?" Shunori asked.

"A gang of bandits are raiding the next village, Shunori-san. If we hurry, we will catch them before they can escape!"

Shunori nodded quickly and turned to Takeko. "Rouse the others, Takeko-san. We ride!"

They were surrounded by bandits. Shunori and his men numbered only two dozen and the bandits soon realized they numbered nearly three to each of the Lion one. Shunori and his men fought with frenzied devotion, yet by sheer numbers they had been pushed back behind the biggest building in the small farming town. Three of the Lions watched the sides with bows ready for any sign of a bandit foolish enough to rush their position. At the moment, the bandits were content to yell insults and obscenities at them from afar.

Shunori sat down on the ground and looked at the surroundings. His men had fought for an hour, yet none of them showed any signs of slowing down. Four of his men had died. Shunori grimaced. If he had had a better plan, or if he had been a better leader, he thought bitterly, perhaps his comrades could have lived through it.

His musings were interrupted by a loud thud in front of him as Takeko slammed her scabbard into the ground. He looked up at her. She had led the fight at each encounter, relishing the opportunity to defeat her foes. Her face was splattered by blood, lending her a truly fearful look.

"Orders, Shunori-san?" she asked.

"The bandits are fools," he replied. "If they were competent, we would already be dead. Yet they take no cover, and have not attempted to deny us cover. We are outnumbered, yet if we can flank their group we can destroy them."

The man next to Shunori nodded. He was another young man fresh from his gempukku, and though he bled from a few cuts his eyes blazed with eagerness to reenter the fight. "How shall we do that, Shunori-san?"

Shunori looked around once more. He peeked out the side of the building and glanced at the bandits" positions. He quickly retreated when the jeers of the bandits grew louder. He looked back at his men, unperturbed by what he saw. "They seem to be gathering in front of the house. I give us only a few more moments before they charge our position. Takeko-san"

He paused. He knew that his friend was one of the strongest in the unit, yet his order would put her in the most danger. He felt no qualms about his friend being in battle, but the thought that his tactical maneuvers might get her and others killed rose up in the back of his mind. He coughed to cover up his pause and pushed the fear from his mind. Now, he mused, was no time for his personal fears.

"Takeko-san, take half the men and lead them around the right side of this building. The other farmers" buildings are close enough there that you can reach the bandits" rear flank undetected. Their leader is there. Teach him the folly of his ways, and his death will shake this scum to their core."

Takeko nodded and grinned fiercely, energized by the thought of fighting the bandit lord. She pointed at a few men and they headed off toward the right of the building. "As for us," Shunori said and grabbed his bow, "we hide their approach!"

With a shout, he leapt from hiding. He drew an arrow quickly and shot it, letting his instinct direct it at the enemy. Behind him, the rest of his men charged out, letting out a fierce battle shout. Shunori was an Akodo, and Lion led by an Akodo would not know defeat.

Takeko stalked as fast as she could behind the half-burnt houses, taking care to keep low to the ground. The others followed her example and they moved as one toward the bandit lord. Takeko studied him as they drew closer. Whereas the rest of the bandits seemed ill-equipped and half fed, the bandit lord was immaculately clean and large as a Crab. The no-dachi in his hands looked to be well oiled and sharpened. He was not just a desperate ronin, but a worthy enemy. Takeko eyes gleamed with excitement.

Before the rest of her men could react, she leapt to her full height and charged forward. Stealth did not become her, a proud warrior of the Matsu family, and she would bear it no more than she had to. The other Lions followed her lead and charged right behind her. The ronin guarding the leader were taken unaware by the sudden assault, and Takeko cut several down before the bandits turned toward the new threat. The assault had been enough. Takeko stood in front of the bandit lord, sword ready. The others fought around them, but to Takeko, all had disappeared but her target.

The leader studied her with emotionless eyes. He drew his no-dachi and let the scabbard fall to the floor. Finally, he spoke."A young woman like you should not die so early."

"Know this!" Takeko shouted at the top of her lungs. I am Matsu Takeko, daughter of Matsu Tomiya, who defeated demons at the Battle of Otosan Uchi! Granddaughter of Matsu Haruka, who led the charge against the Scorpion during their craven coup! 1 will honor my family and sensei by ending your life!"

"So be it," he replied. Even before he ended the sentence he charged with a speed that belied his size. Takeko barely moved aside as his massive no-dachi slashed down where she had stood only a moment earlier. He reacted to her move instantly, attacking her new position with little effort. Takeko raised her katana and deflected the attack, but the strength of the attack forced her to stumble.

She had no time to attack. The bandit leader used his giant no-dachi as if it were a small dagger, moving it with finesse wherever she would go. Every strike got closer and closer to her body. She watched his movements then smiled once more. Within the few moments after they had engaged in combat, she had learned his style. She could figure out how to counter any style she understood. She allowed him to strike at her two more times, then counterattacked. On his third strike, while his arms were extended out to the right, she slashed at the inside of his wrists with pinpoint accuracy. The no-dachi fell to the floor. Takeko struck once more, and the bandit lord head joined the blade.

The bandits around Takeko stared incredulously at their dead leader. One by one, they dropped their weapons and turned tail. Takeko let out a ferocious shout of triumph.

A loud horn echoed through the air, as if in response. Takeko turned to the road. The flag of the Imperial Legions fluttered in the air as horsemen rode toward the town. They reached the town in a few moments, and the man in the lead horse stopped in front of her.

`Are there more of the enemy around? How fare your men?"

Before she could respond, Shunori staggered up to the horsemen, covered in cuts. He bowed deeply. "I am Akodo Shunori, commander of this patrol of the Lion lands. I thank you for bringing Imperial justice to our aid."

The lead horseman dismounted and took off his helmet. Shunori eyes grew wide. His savior was Toturi Shigekawa, the general of the Imperial Legions himself. Once, Shigekawa was a Lion, yet through his loyalty and his valor in battle he had earned the name of the Imperial family. "No thanks are necessary, Shunori-san," Shigekawa said.

"You have done well, lad," said Shigekawa.

Shunori bowed deeply. "I thank you for your kind words, Shigekawa-sama, but they are not necessary. This village was along our patrol path. We simply did our duty, as any Akodo would."

"You give yourself too little credit," Shigekawa replied. He looked around at the devastated farm and frowned. "These bandits are worse than carrion, preying upon the weak at this troubled hour. More and more of these gangs have gathered, and we must put an end to it."

Takeko pushed her way forward and stopped next to Shunori. She bowed. "These maggots will continue to plague the empire while the throne rests empty, Shigekawa-sama."

Shigekawa turned and looked at the brash young girl. Shunori froze, horrified at his friend lack of restraint. Shigekawa simply laughed.

"A Matsu will always speak her mind," he said with a small smile. "You are right, Matsu-san. Someone strong must become the emperor and scour the land for these threats. Every moment that they continue to exist is another moment they threaten the safety of Rokugan."

Shunori and Takeko bowed.

"Let us not speak of such matters now. My men will take care of the village," Shigekawa continued. He turned to face the entire patrol. "You all have served as the protectors of the people today. I would be honored to escort you the rest of the way to Shiro Matsu. Today the world will hear of your bravery. Today, poets will sing of the strength of the Lion honor that drives him to face all odds in the name of his duty."

Kaze no Shiro Return


Togashi will return!