Authors: Maya Snow
e had become a family without a home, creeping from place to place. Uncle Hidehira still roamed free, spreading death across the land. Our battle with him had forced us underground, and we had become prisoners hiding from the sun. We lived by the light of the moon now, moving under cover of darkness when one of our hideaways grew too dangerous. We were shadowless and invisible, like
I could not have known it then, but that period in hiding sowed the seeds of something much worse than bloodshed. My family was reunited, but those days drove us apart, as we each found different ways of meeting the world that waited for us when we emerged.
My anger almost consumed me, and my struggle would leave Hana and me with scars we would carry forever. But in the end we found out just how strong our scars had made us.
We would need that strength like never before.
he battle raged around me. My hand went for the hilt of my sword but closed on empty space. Where was it? I staggered back as samurai soldiers swarmed past. Angry faces shouted curses from behind their
helmets, and blood-smeared swords were raised against the blue sky. A horse galloped up. In the saddle sat an archer, his longbow held aloft. He looked down the shaft, pointing the arrowhead through the fighting crowds. As I watched, the soldier pulled back the strings and released an arrow. It sliced through the air, smooth and fluid. I twisted to watch its flightâand saw the face of our loyal friend, Tatsuya.
I tried to cry out but no sound escaped me. Tatsuya's eyes opened wide in shock as the arrow found its home in his chest. He brought up a trembling hand and tried to yank out the arrow from between his ribs, but the shaft snapped in two. I wanted to help him, but it was too late.
A soldier in glittering samurai armor appeared and pushed my dying friend to the ground. The man and I gazed at each other across Tatsuya's bloody corpse. I recognized the eyes of
my uncle, staring back at me. His lip curled in a sneer.
“It should have been you,” he said, stepping over Tatsuya. And I knew his words were true. “Some say you're too young to die. But I say you're too dangerous to live.”
I heard the hiss of metal as Uncle drew his sword and rested its point against my throat. The blade felt cool against my skin. Then with a single, rapid movement Uncle sliced my neck and blood ran down my chest, hot and sticky. My hands clutched at my throat, and I fell to my knees. I tried to cry out, but the only sound I could hear was the throaty laugh of my uncle as he watched my blood pool in the dirt.
“Good-bye, Kimi,” he said. “It's time to join your fatherâ¦.”
My eyes snapped open. I sat up sharply, my hands at my throat. Two hanging bamboo screens batted against each other, and a mosquito hovered in the air above me, droning. In a corner of the room a standing torch burned low.
I was nowhere near the battlefield. I was in the small village inn where I was hiding with my family. I didn't know whether to feel relief or regret as I sank back onto the thin mattress. I pulled the linen bed covering over my body.
Hana was lying on the floorboards beside me in the private room of the innkeeper, her face as peaceful as a baby's. Beyond her lay Mother and
Moriyasu. My little brother was curled up in the folds of Mother's robe.
We had escaped Uncle Hidehira and his samurai soldiers. But our freedom had come at a bitter price.
I turned my face to the wall and tried to erase the image from my nightmare of Tatsuya's lifeless eyes. He had been brave enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with us against Uncle in the past. But now our friend was gone, captured by faceless enemiesâby ninjaâand I didn't even know if he was still alive.
Hair stuck to my temples and my hands were clammy in the stuffy room. I felt a swelling of frustration in my chest. We should have been outside, helping the villagers with the early morning chores or riding around the estates raising an army! Instead, we dared not show our faces.
Beside me, Hana shifted in her sleep. I didn't want to wake her.
Enjoy your few moments of peace, sister,
They'll be gone soon enough
. As if she'd heard my thoughts, Hana opened her eyes and gazed at me sleepily. She sat up and wrapped her slender arms around her legs.
“A new day,” she said quietly. “I dreamed of Tatsuya again. He was helping us train like when we were at Master Goku's school.”
I tried to smile, but my sister noticed how my expression faltered.
“What is it, Kimi?” Hana whispered, concerned. I had never been able to hide my feelings from her.
“I dreamed of him, too, Hana. But we weren't winning the fight.”
Hana's brow furrowed.
“We have to get out of here,” I whispered, flinging my covers to one side. I was struggling to breathe in the close heat of the room and tiptoed over to one of the joins in the screens where there was a gap just wide enough to see outside. I pushed my face to the crack. Whispers of sweet air brushed against my cheeks and I breathed in deeply.
“And do what?” my sister asked. She padded toward me on bare feet, careful not to make a noise. It wasn't just our sleeping mother and brother we had to think about. No one outside the inn could know we were here. I longed for the freedom that lay outside that door, but danger waited as well. Danger that felt closer by the day.
Suddenly a group of children ran past, calling out to one another. I drew back.
“Patience, Kimi,” Hana said, keeping her voice low. “The innkeeper has risked his life to take care of us. We should be grateful.”
A dandelion spore passed through the air between us and I tried to snatch it, but it glided out of my grasp, swimming away on an invisible current of air.
“I am grateful,” I said, picking my words carefully, “but I am also tired of running! Enough hiding!”
Hana nodded, but she did not feel the same frustration I did at our situation. “The people of the villages certainly seem to be on our side.” She looked up at me. “Can you believe it, Kimi? We have been on our own for so long and nowâ¦now, the people on the estates know our story. And they rebel against Uncle!”
It was true. While we had been hiding here, the innkeeperâYoshikiâhad brought us meals of rice and miso soup. Each day, as we shared this cramped space with him and his daughter, he would tell us stories of small defiance. There had been an early
ceremony in the fields for driving out pests, and the whisper had gone around the seed beds that the pest they were driving out was Hidehira.
“Only a few moon phases ago, no one would have dared question the
,” Hana said.
The mood of the province was changing and for the first time the two of us could indulge in the luxury of hope. But menace still lurked; I could not relax my attention for a moment. Yoshiki also told us of how Uncle was rapidly tightening his grip and expanding his reach.
I looked past my sister at my sleeping brother and
mother. “We have our family back with us,” I whispered, my throat tight with emotion.
Moriyasu rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, sighing. Mother turned in her sleep and draped a protective arm around her only surviving son.
“Soldiers! They're here!”
Yoshiki burst into the room, roughly sliding open the screen so that it made us jump. For these few days, he had been careful not to draw attention to us. Things had to be bad for him to be so reckless now.
He dropped to his knees in the center of the room and started to pull up floorboards. His face was red and shiny with sweat. Understanding the danger, I threw myself to the ground and grappled with a board, heaving until it gave way.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“They're looking for you, I think,” he said. “There's no other reason they would have come back.” Our eyes locked. We both knew that this was life or death. And not only for my family and me. Yoshiki and the whole village could be killed if we were discovered.
“Thank you,” I said.
Yoshiki nodded and glanced at Moriyasu. Our brother had been woken by the disturbance and was watching us keenly. Mother stirred behind him. I realized that Yoshiki shared our hopesâthat one day
Moriyasu, our father's rightful heir, would grow up to return these estates to stability and happiness.
“Don't thank me,” Yoshiki said, turning back. “Just try to stay alive.”
Mother and Moriyasu scrambled to their feet. Mother's hands trembled as she pulled her robe tight around her waist and accepted the sword that Yoshiki held out to her. Little Moriyasu bit his lip, trying not to show his fear. Our father's son, he had been brave for so long.
“I usually store rice down here, but there's none left,” Yoshiki explained. “It will make a good hiding place for you.”
Outside, we could hear screams and cries for help among terse voices issuing commands. Looking out through the main room, I saw a woman dragged past the open screen by a samurai soldier. The thick leather panels of his armor glistened in the sunlight and the bronze trim on his iron helmet shone dangerously. If he had turned his head, he would have seen us.
There was no time to waste.
I scrambled into the shallow dirt cavity and reached for my sister, pulling her down beside me. Moriyasu leaped in next to us. Mother gracefully stepped down, Yoshiki holding her hand to steady her. Even in this danger, her face remained serene.
“Stay calm, my children,” she said, lying on the packed earth beside us.
“Good luck to you,” Yoshiki whispered. Then the wooden floorboards were put back in place over our heads.
It felt as though we were being buried alive.
I stared up at the dark floorboards. My arms were pinned to my sides by the bodies of my sister and brother and the air was thick with the scent of wood, so close to our faces. Yoshiki threw a mat over where we were hiding and dust settled onto us. My eyes itched with grit, forcing slow tears to streak down either side of my face. I couldn't move to wipe them away. I licked my lips nervously and immediately regretted it as dirt filled my mouth.
I willed myself. I could feel Hana's fingers twitching beside me as she struggled to control her own panic. Moriyasu let out a quiet sob.
“Sit there, my sweet one,” I heard Yoshiki say gently above. “Try not to move.”
“Why?” a small voice asked. It was Sakura, Yoshiki's daughter. The innkeeper was using his own daughter as a decoy. We heard the floorboards shift as Sakura came to take her place on the mat above our heads. I whispered a silent prayer of thanks and promised myself that one day I would repay this innocent girl, caught in the chase.
Heavy footsteps sounded nearbyâconfident, aggressive, and determined. Fate had arrived at our doorway. I twisted my wrist so that my fingertips could brush against the back of Hana's hand.
“Are you the innkeeper?” a deep voice demanded. I heard Yoshiki fall to his knees in front of the man. I could just see Yoshiki's flushed face through a crack between the floorboards that weren't covered by the mat.
“I am,” he acknowledged.
“Ten bags of rice from each village are to be bestowed upon the esteemed Lord Steward Yamamoto, now that he controls these lands. Hand over your rice immediately.”
“I am sorry, sir, but I have nothing for you. All our rice has long gone to the Lord Steward. We are destitute.” I admired Yoshiki for the calmness of his speech. The soldier would almost certainly have his hand on his sword.
“I don't believe you!” shouted the soldier, enraged.
A sudden scuffling sound made me catch my breath.
“Father!” Sakura cried out above us.
Yoshiki's feet dragged on the floorboards as he was pulled across the room.
“Show me your supplies!” I could imagine the
spittle landing on Yoshiki's cheeks. Yoshiki was thrown out of the little room, footsteps following him.
Silence fell, though I could hear my heart pumping hard in my chest. I waited for a movement from Sakura; for her to run after her father. She shifted her weight uneasily above us, but stayed put.
“Father?” she whispered into the empty room, and her small voice broke and trembled. I wished I could put my arms around her and comfort her. But there was no comfort to be had for any of us.
All we could do was wait.