New American Library, January 2007
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by Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Barbara Samuel, Karen Harbaugh
Kyushu, Japan, 1650.
A small rustle sounded, and two men emerged from behind two trees on either side of the road. They wore rough kimonos tucked up to reveal dirty sandaled feet, and their faces were masked with kerchiefs, their eyes shadowed by the bandannas tied over their foreheads.
Anna swallowed. They did not seem friendly, especially since they approached with a menacing swagger, and long knives in their hands. She suppressed the fright and the shiver that went up her spine, and tried to turn the pony back up the road. Her pony halted and snorted with suspicion instead, and she groaned with frustration. Digging her heels in its sides and shaking the reins did nothing to make it move or turn around.
"A foreign woman!" cried one of the bandits. "She will have money on her, I am sure."
Anna and kicked the pony again. It did nothing but snort and rear a little, almost unseating her. "I have nothing of worth," she said in Japanese. "Let me be."
"Oh ho!" said the other bandit. "She speaks our language." He nudged the other man with his elbow. "If she has not much money as she says, what shall we do with her?"
The other shrugged. "We'll take what she has, and then sell her to the whoremaster."
Fear choked her. They were not dragons as Sato-san feared, but worse. Stupid! She should have hired someone to accompany her, for even though a stout peasant might not be proof against a dragon, he might have been of some help against bandits.
She held up her pistol. "Stop! If you try to harm me, I will shoot you."
The men paused, then laughed, coming closer. "You have but one weapon, and there are two of us. We will take our chances."
She swallowed, hoping that the pistol would fire, and eyed the distance between the men and herself. If it didn't, and she was quick, she might possibly jump from the pony and run. How far, and for how long, she was not sure, but at least she could try. She had not much choice, since the pony refused to move and instead cropped grass. The men continued to advance.
She pointed the pistol at one of the men, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger.
A loud explosion from the weapon jerked her hand back to her chest, and she fell from the pony, barely managing to keep hold of the pistol and find purchase as her feet touched the ground. Ignoring a loud rip as her dress caught on the saddle, she ran just as the two bandits charged at her.
Running up the road she had just traveled, she was glad that she had eaten and rested well at Sato-san's farmhouse, for she was not at all tired. But the bandits must have been well-fed and rested as well, for a glance behind her showed them gaining on her, and she was not sure whether she would find help before the bandits caught up with her. She noted with satisfaction that she had at least managed to hit one man, for blood ran between his fingers as he clutched his shoulder and ran after her.
She glanced to her left and right-woods, and it might be possible to escape the men there. She had always been nimble; noticing how one man stumbled for a moment, she might be able to escape them...unless they knew the woods better than she.
The slap-slap of their sandals against the ground grew louder, and she could hear their breaths behind her. Her own came harder; she did not know how much longer she could run.
A flash of light caught her attention-the sun glinted on water some distance away--a stream, or a pool. The image of the dragon came to her mind, and she veered toward the water.
Foolishness! She thought. It was not her dragon's pond, only a stream that fed into a small pool, and shallow at that. But at least she could go across it, and perhaps if she were lucky, she'd not slip and the men behind her would fall behind.
But they did not. She looked about her for some kind of weapon besides her pistol as she ran. She was tiring quickly now, and if she had to stop, at least she could fight. The stream was near now, and large rocks lined each bank. Good, she thought. Rocks might cause some damage to these bandits, if she threw them hard enough.
She stooped to gather some in her hands as she crossed the stream--shallow, but filled with treacherously slick stones and moss. She was almost across now, but the bandits' splashing behind her sounded too close. She turned, and with as much strength as she could muster, threw the pistol and the rocks she had at them.
"Ai!" The pistol's stock hit one man neatly on the forehead.
"Bakayaro! Idiot! Don't get in my way-ow!" A rock hit the other near his eye.
Anna grinned fiercely, and turned to run again, managing to gain a good few yards on the other side of the stream, but pain lanced through her instep, and she gasped, falling, her hands crashing through the ferns that hid the rock on which she'd twisted her foot.
A triumphant laugh sounded behind her, and hands grasped her skirts. Please, she prayed, closing her eyes tightly. Someone help me. A tug at her skirt resulted in a ripping sound, and she tried to kick behind her, as best as she could.
A loud, terrified cry sounded from one of the bandits. A harsh swish sliced the air behind her, and another cry was cut off, mid-scream.
She waited, closing her eyes even tighter. There was only the sound of her own shaking breath hissing from between her clenched teeth as she huddled amongst the ferns. Anna pushed herself up, looking cautiously around, then moaned when she caught sight of what had become of the bandits.
She'd seen enough death, illnesses, and surgeries when she'd worked at her father's side not to feel ill, but such an execution.... She could not be blamed if her stomach clenched and felt just a little queasy. Anna looked about her, avoiding the gruesome sight, trying to get her bearings.
She almost missed seeing him, for a soft mist had risen from the forest floor, dappling the light and shadow that played amongst the slender birch branches and green leaves fluttering upon them. His form seemed almost to blend with the arching trees, and his black, white, and forest green kimono seemed to shift beneath the beams of light filtering through the branches.
Only the red that gleamed on the edge of his sword stood out stark in his surroundings.
"You killed them!" she cried, shuddering.
The samurai raised his brows in clear puzzlement.
"You killed them," Anna repeated, this time in Japanese.
The puzzled expression did not disappear. "Hai," the samurai said. "I think that is obvious." His expression changed to one of surprise. "Did you not want me to stop them?"
"Yes--no--that is, surely you could have done it without killing them?" Anna rose to her feet and brushed off as much dirt from her dress as she could, while averting her eyes from the erstwhile bandits.
"I recognized them: they are known criminals and would have done worse to you," he said. He stepped out of the trees' shadows, and in one smooth motion, wiped the blood from his blade and returned it to its scabbard.
She looked up at him then, and could not help staring for a long moment before remembering her manners and bowing low. He was taller than most Japanese men, and his face was lean rather than broad. His high, well-sculpted cheekbones looked as severe as his arched nose, his straight dark eyebrows that swept upwards to his temples, and pulled-back hair, black as a crow's wing. She had imagined him a part of the forest when she'd first spied him, and the impression did not dissipate, for his movements were lithe and sinuous. His appearance reminded her of the descriptions of the elfinkind in her mother's English nursery tales: otherworldly and dangerous.
She glanced at him again and bowed in acknowledgement. "You are right, they meant ill toward me. But I am sure I would have outrun them." She glanced up at the sun-she would need to hurry now, for the sun was at its zenith, and if she wished to reach the town of Imari before it became dark, she should leave now. She turned to take a step away from him.
"Oh, ouch! Oh dear--" She gasped and bit her lip as pain shot through her foot.
"If you had not hurt your foot," the samurai concluded for her. Anna felt a spurt of annoyance at the amusement in his voice, and the blush that rose in her cheeks.
But he was not looking at her in return, for he had gone to the edge of the stream and was washing his hands, presumably of the blood from the bandits, she thought, shuddering. He stood, and shook the water from his hands. "You are far from Nagasaki. I am surprised you were not accosted before."
"My parents were given permission by your Emperor to travel as far as Saga and Imari."
The samurai raised his brows, but bowed in acknowledgement. "You have been much honored," he said. "Only a few foreigners have been allowed such a privilege. To what town were you traveling? Arita? Imari?"
"Imari," she replied. "But if I must, Arita, if I cannot come to Imari before sunset."
He nodded at her foot. "You will have to stop at Arita--and at whatever village you may encounter on the way. You will not be able to travel far on that foot."
She lifted her chin, but bit back a groan when her foot began to pound. It was a sprain, at the very least, and she would have to bind it soon to keep it from swelling more than it was already, and to keep it stable. "I have a pony," she said, but even she could tell her voice did not sound confident.
"You will still not reach Imari by sunset," he said. He looked at her for a long moment, and then sighed. "I will take you to your pony, and then accompany you to the next village or farm house." He shook his head. "You should have agreed to let Sato-san's village headman find a guard for you. If you had, I would not have had to stay at a distance from you."
"You followed me!" Mixed embarrassment and relief momentarily her scattered her thoughts, and then with a deep breath, she said, "I did not ask for a guard, nor can I afford to pay for one."
The samurai raised his brows. "Was that why you refused an escort? Honto, had you offered payment to anyone assigned to guard you, it would have been declined as an insult, for it is the ruling damiyo's duty to ensure travelers are guarded on their travels." He looked at her curiously. "Were your parents not guarded when they traveled?"
Anna bit her lower lip before replying--she felt such a fool! "They were occasionally, but they never told me anything about the details. I assumed they paid for the service." She lifted her chin again. "I believed I could manage quite well by myself, and so I did--"
The samurai gave a disbelieving snort. "As I witnessed only moments ago."
"I would have, if… if… " She shrugged. "I see no profit standing and talking to you when I could be on my way to Imari."
"Arita," he said. "You will not make it to Imari before dark." His voice became sympathetic. "It is brave of you to continue with an injured foot but, honto ni, it is not practical." He stepped toward her and held out his hand.