Prologue: Tausaii Kegurai
In which we meet our heroine
A bleak mist hung low over the valley, thick and dense which shadowed the lights of the houses, the waking peoples staring out into the street before returning to the warmth of their sheets. The grasses were dampened by the soft, shimmering dew, atop the stems hung droplets of water which looked as though the chill of winter were already upon them.
It was a fresh morning, unseasonally colder but not unwelcomingly, nor unsought. Recent days of the past fortnight had been humid and sticky, the nights were short but the discomfort of them left many peoples thinking they were longer. Eventually some of them longed for the chill of winter: this morning was the first sign of the approaching season, winter’s grip beginning to close over the island of Tausaii Kegurai.
No man nor woman stirred on the island yet, it was earlier than any of them cared to emerge. The morning fog was not unusual in the vale, the bay below the valley was often the host of such weather and was more often than not covered in a layer of low lying mist. The people liked it, it gave the land a feeling of mystery and suspicion; some people believed dragons hid among the fog, others claimed to have seen monsters below the waters, some in the form of terrible serpents, some with countless arms or tentacles, others were too absurd to speak of or else too random.
Most of the peoples began to appear on the streets and across the countryside by about six in the morning, when the dew had settled and the sun was burning the mist away. Only a select few dared venture out earlier: hunters whose catch valued the secrecy and quiet morning, sailors whose loads would not wait, farmers who worked the longest hours, and a few servants who were keen or else pushed to work.
The most frequent folk who ventured out earliest were oft times children, the workers of the villages uncredited and unrecognised as the backbone of the island. Those who ventured out early were the poor children, whose parents had died, were widowed, or else were also too poor to pay for the children to be schooled. The result of such circumstances was more often than not an early aged labour, when the children were sent out in the early hours to work on farms and begging. One or two who were luckier found work in the rich households, were paid with food and more money than any of the others, though it was still poor payment. Some of these children were even given accommodation, much to the relief of underpaid parents.
Even so, the children’s lives were not as blissful as some people thought, certainly not even as the rich homeowners thought, who considered themselves saints who blessed the children and gifted them the work. The workload of the children was far greater than many of them could manage, some forced themselves to the point of illness or even death to carry out the work, out of desperation more than loyalty. They were forced to work from early hours until late, given work including child care for younger children of the homeowners, often their tasks included walking for miles to shops, fishing and hunting, sometimes they were abused by the homeowners, especially the men when the children were girls. There was cruelty too, for the rich often had their children schooled at their homes; if one of the servant children was caught trying to listen in on the schooling lesson it often resulted in beatings or else being removed from the household, sometimes left on the street miles from their own homes.
Among the citizens of the town called Nakarui, most of whom were among the poor population of Tausaii Kegurai and many of whom served as fishermen and farmers, no one knew the hardships of the children’s labour as well as the soldier’s daughter, Yaru. The fishermen and farmers of the town considered the children’s lives easy going and free from the suffering they endured day by day, yet Yaru knew the truth of it; in her eyes it was worse.
In her youth, Yaru was thought an orphan; her father had been sent out to war against the peoples of Takijai and Gorse, fighting among the emperor’s army. Her mother was taken ill a few days after his leaving; unable to pay for a doctor she eventually came to have a fever which took her life. Yaru’s father, Yung Djin, was reported to have taken an elite force into the heart of Takijai, but the company of only thirty were not seen again by the scouts, so were presumed dead. Yaru, left alone at the age of four without any relatives or willing carers, was forced to work for a rich family in Gan Sai, a city almost fifty miles away from her home in Nakarui.
She travelled to the house every week, only returning home for three days. For four more years she worked for the family, carrying their babies on her back while she worked, being paid to do the work and keep the children quiet. It was hard work; the children grew quickly but still she was forced to carry them, then the work increased. She sang them quiet songs she had learnt from her father, when that failed she fed them milk from the goat or had to take them away from the house so it was quiet. After four years, when Yaru was eight and of moderate size, the father of the home began to see Yaru as an attractive girl. He was an older man, knowing only the old ways of life whence men could choose to spend nights with their wives or hire brothel whores for the night and expected no response from the wives. Even to him and his older ways the idea of sleeping with a child was nothing if not normal. When they were in private areas and Yaru could not escape he tried to grope her, but even at the young age she was she knew the ways of the world and managed to escape his clutches.
She could never forget that day. She left her work unfinished and fled into the night two days before she was due the leave for her break. Her trust in people vanished that day; she had spoken with the mother of the household but she would do nothing, instead she forbade Yaru to speak of such things and accused her of lying. The man and woman had come to know Yaru well, she trusted them from the age of four as a child would have done instinctively, then it vanished in one day.
Running through the night in her indoor wear, without proper shoes and crying. It took her less time that unusual, but it seemed to take almost an age to return to Nakarui, where she made her home again. She never came over that night, she never forgave the man, nor trusted anyone else truly again. Not until she met Master Jrun, at least.
Aged eight, she found herself work as a gardener for a little while. It lasted almost a year and paid enough to get by, though she ate little and wore clothes to the last thread. She began by gardening neighbours’ houses and was hired to tend the town centre, though there was only a small patch of grass and a ring of flowers. Eventually she learnt to sow and even farm her own food in one of the small patches of land beside her garden. When a passer saw her crops and discovered she worked as a gardener, he offered her work on his farm harvesting the crops and a salary which was enough to keep her home paid for.
Two years of farm work made Yaru stronger than she had ever thought she could be; she could lift bales of hay before any of the boys on the farm her age and soon managed to hurl them further too. Even the farmhands who had spent years working the land respected her and appreciated how she had grown and come to find such strength. While the farmhands stopped to rest she continued regardless of the stress and straining muscles, pushing herself to the limits of her physical and mental allowance. All the while she taught herself words her father once taught her, to continue despite the worst, to force herself and to become better by it.
Of course after some time the boys started flirting with her, she was one of the only women on the farm and she was the youngest. She ignored them for half of the first year, then when they started trying to touch her she would kick them or punch them, with her new found strength they left off for a while to recover from the odd broken rib. It worked for a time and on some of the boys, but some of the older farmhands were stronger and determined, they pushed her back and recited laws which said how women should respect men. She ignored them, but she could not overpower them all the while, especially when outnumbered.
Oft times it was the farmer who stopped them, sometimes he was not there and Yaru either had to run or else fought to the end. It took a year for the farmer to notice she was getting abused, even as she carried on with the workload and was fitter than any of his farmhands he could see the trouble she was receiving from the boys. Then aged twelve she was developing in appearance, much to the delight of the farmhands, but the farmer would not allow it any more.
He paid her more than she was owed on the last day, thanked her for her service and ordered her to go to a bamboo cutter called Jrun. Yaru knew the man, he lived on the edge of the valley, well outside of the town next to a bamboo forest which stretched nearby to the edge of Gan Sai. She met him briefly before, most of the time was in passing on her way to the city or in Nakarui. He seemed a kindly old man but had never stopped to speak for long. When she had seen him last she was a younger child and avoided him more than any villager she knew; he was the type of man who always carried a knife for cutting the bamboo and had a scruffy, untidy appearance. Asides from cutting bamboo and selling it here and there, no one in the village spoke of him much or knew what else he did. Some people made up rumours that he communed with spirits and delved into dark arts, some said he was a magician who hid his magic in the forest and some even dared to say that he was a wyrm disguised as a human who changed his form in the woodland to hunt and keep himself protected. Yaru believed none of these, but supposed any of them could have been possible. In her youth she had not believed in such creatures as wyrms or spirits until she encountered some. It was not until that same week when she was sent away from the farm that she first encountered wyrms and dragons, for in the skies above Tausaii Kegurai she saw a wyrm weaving through the sky like a serpent on the earth, heading out to sea. That same day she saw fire burst from the mountainside the like of which she had never seen before and assumed that must have been dragon’s breath.
Following the farmer’s advice, she went to the bamboo cutter at his hut beside the forest. It was a beautiful place nearby to a rushing stream and a waterfall echoing in the distance. There were tended gardens full of life, not only plants but hundreds of creatures which she would have thought wild; bees came and went as they pleased, deer and boar roamed freely too and wild rabbits, though they were more cautious of the approaching stranger. The stream was full of bright fish too, koi and eating fish which occasionally she saw cranes coming to peer at. She decided that the stream must have lead down into the valley and into the ocean, but she never followed it nor found its mouth in the vale.
She arrived at the cutter’s house carrying only a few supplies and more money than she had ever had before, though it seemed useless to her. The man, Jrun, had been told that Yaru would arrive by the farmer and welcomed her. As it turned out they were brothers and Jrun worked and lived alone; no hands to help him harvest, no wife, no one with a chance of abusing Yaru save the bamboo cutter himself, which Yaru suspected for a while. Jrun sensed her hostility too, he knew she had lost faith in people but particularly men, so respected her privacy and her ways of coping with the stresses of life. Hers was, after all, an unusual life so far, even for a woman of Tausaii Kegurai. As her memory of him remarked him as a young man, she was surprised when the figure before her was not as she recalled but seemed nearby to his eightieth year.
It took her a year to gain confidence around him, but he offered her a home to live in, (though she remained in her parents’ house), he taught her how to cut the bamboo and check it, he even had tools fashioned for Yaru especially at his own cost. Knives, saws, an axe, chisels, ropes, mallets, and everything else she needed.
After a year of working for the man she became curious of him. He was kind without expecting kindness in return; indeed Yaru lacked delivering kindness, her mistreatment as a child had left her cold and lacking of anything except acceptance and obedience towards her employers. In time she learnt to return all that she received and gave the man her appreciation and kindness. He never asked too much of Yaru, nor expected it, and gave plenty of rest when she tried to push herself on. “You rest and you’ll work more afterwards. You continue and hurt one muscle then it ends. Take your time, it is not the speed of the journey which determines the joy of the destination.” Jrun told her.
Then, one night, she saw him in the bamboo forest. He hid away from the sight of any passers, in a small glade he had fashioned himself with thick bamboo tree walls and only one path. In the glade he practised martial arts and skills with sword, spear, axe, bow, whip, daggers, and staff. He was, Yaru realised, a master martial artist, only he lacked the one thing a master needed: a pupil.
Jrun was more than happy to teach Yaru the skills he had learnt, but set her tasks to complete first. Nothing taxing on physical ability, nor anything unfair. He set her a list of mind challenges, though she passed most of them with ease one question he asked plagued her for a longer while. Prior to teaching her, he asked her: ‘Why should you learn to fight?’.
It was not the question itself which confused Yaru, she could understand it, but the response that Jrun wanted. Initially she had no response. She would have said to defend herself, but immediately, before she could so much as breathe, Jrun said “To defend yourself is to stop violence, how can you stop violence against yourself if you use violence on others? A punch is like a fire, it only ever spreads. Why should you learn to fight? To attack those who have wronged you? Again it only spreads, and for whatever crimes they have committed now you want to repay that with anger and injury, then they will do the same, or if they are dead then their families will.”
It took Yara longer than she cared to admit to find the answer which satisfied Jrun. “It’s not causing harm, nor defending yourself. Defending other people, that’s what I want to do.” she had said, but this did not satisfy him. “To fight in the war.” she had said, but this was not the answer he wanted. Hearing these words enraged him, he despised war and loathed the bloodshed of it.
At last, she said “Because the violence which spreads is uncontrolled. It’s not fighting the person which matters, but fighting their aggression. I want to learn to defeat a man, but never to kill them. I want to learn to stop them in their tracks with minimal injury. I want to learn how to make their actions work against themselves, so they can see what each of their blows does, then perhaps they will respect others more and respect themselves and their anger less.”
This seemed to satisfy Jrun, whether he was growing too tired of Yaru’s answers or else this was what he had longed to hear. The answer prompted him to begin teaching her.
When she was a child, her father taught her to stress herself, strain muscles and push herself to the limits, to grow stronger through every opportunity and every action. She was taught that practise was the answer, the determination of the fight, to increase herself beyond human measures and aim for something impossible. Master Jrun’s teachings opposed everything her father had taught her and challenged it: he taught her to meditate and to work slowly with things before even beginning to think about closing a fist. He taught her about her own body, how the muscles, bones, and nerves worked and wanted to move. He began by explaining which bones were strongest to strike with, and which should be protected, but above all things he taught Yaru to forget pressuring herself and stressing over building a strong body, rather to build the endurance to use it.
“The most important thing in any battle is endurance and preservation.” Master Jrun said.
“I have endurance.” Yaru said.
“Perhaps, but never enough.” Master Jrun said. “No one has enough. The runner can run for a thousand miles, even with that endurance he is lacking when his bed is five more miles away. Rush into battle and you will be unprepared, your body will slow down, even before you land the first blow you are tired, after one fight you may have no breath left. Walk into battle with a calm mind and body, and you may last for longer than the strongest opponent. Now you are not fighting, take your time to savour every breath and focus on how to breathe.”
To Yaru, who was scarcely more than a child, the concept of learning to breathe seemed to have nothing in relation to martial arts, nor to do with any martial combat. Jrun chose to focus on breathing before even mentioning combat to Yaru, helping her to develop her lungs and teach her how to use them more effectively than usual.
At the beginning and end of every lesson he said to Yaru ‘Breath is life. Without breath we die, and every time you hear yourself breath you are listening to nothing more than the purest sound of life itself. Nothing can compare.’
It took her almost a year for Master Jrun to be satisfied with her breathing enough and storing energy rather than wasting it in spare time, that he began to teach her to fight. He began with basic lessons, stances and effectively striking an opponent while unarmed, then the teaching became tougher and more advanced all too quickly for Yaru, though she picked it up relatively easily and quickly. Jrun taught her the skills of swordplay, how to defend oneself with spears and staffs as well as to use them as tools; hunting weapons, climbing aids, means of balance and to cross springs. Master Jrun taught Yaru all that he knew about fighting, the greatest challenge of all her fighting techniques were the unarmed fighting and swordplay, though she mastered both well. All the while she was taught to fight armoured opponents while wearing little more than a robe or dress herself. This was not by the choice that if she were caught armoured she may have been tried for learning to fight, but was under the insistence of Master Jrun.
“Armour is slow and burdening, but worse it is relied on! In the heat of battle a suit of armour may save a soldier’s life, but only when he knew the combat was forthcoming. One cannot wander armoured and so one cannot always rely on it.” Master Jrun said. It was not an unusual choice to be lightly armoured or cloth armoured while using the fighting stances and martial arts which Jrun chose to teach, rather unusual to be armoured in them, but Yaru felt it a slight disadvantage when fighting armoured opponents. As she developed the skills she came to understand the advanced speed and manoeuvrability made up for what was lost.
After a while of studying Jrun, Yaru became curious and fascinated with his religion and his ancestry. It seemed as though his family were among legendary figures of Tausaii Kegurai, but more interesting was one of Jrun’s great forefathers, who was a man called Burud Ghaln, the warlord of Harabia
“Aeons before the peoples of Tausaii Kegurai were born, the kingdom of Harabia was already flowing with life. While most of their peoples were what are now known as the Harabians, the animal-people, many of our originating peoples came from those lands.” Master Jrun said.
“I thought Harabia was desert land.” Yaru said.
“Harabia is vast and has much more than mere desert alone! It spans all types of terrain, though the greater part of that majestic kingdom is desert. Much of it is wasteland, wetland, there is even a jungle!” Master Jrun said. “Our people came from the southern edge of the kingdom, in a small bamboo forest south of a land called Harburi. Long ago, before the Lizzands had come to Illé Nirl and before many of the cruel races emerged, our people were at war with those now called the Harabians. They fought over land, power, and gold, but we were a few against millions. I was not yet born of the world then, that war occurred and was overseen during the First Age. If I recall correctly the date was 1820 when the war began, it was not until many years later that my forefather came into play, for he was the Warlord of Harabia, who was celebrated until his last days as the greatest of their victors. He was a farmer in his youth, like to my brother he was kind and looked out for his farmhands, but like my father he could be vicious if misdealt with, then like me he appreciated life and the knowledge of how to preserve life and oneself with it. Yes, he was a great man, a little quick to anger perhaps and greedy, but nevertheless a great man. In the times of war he served as a farmer for a long while until the war proved failing for them. So then he took up arms, calling his kindred to back him in the war, to claim lands which they were owed. It was their belief that the Harabians took land from them, and worse they tried to control the humans and force their own laws against us, to control us and treat us as though we were beneath them. It was a terrible time for our people, but one on the verge of change thanks to Burud Ghaln. Only a few hundred fell behind him, others mocking him for attempts at taking down an empire which had so far suppressed our peoples. Yet with those few hundred, Burud Ghaln took the first great strongholds in Harburi. Not long afterwards, all the peoples of our kindred came forth to join him and collectively they took the entire region.
“It came to an end eventually, when his greed came the better of him. Once Harburi was taken, he wanted the entire kingdom of Harabia. He had taken a wife who bore two children then, my grandfather’s father and a sister, so he left them behind in the greatest stronghold while he took the army to war. It was a long, bloody, and relentless war which only had three major battles but those battles lasted days, weeks even. After five years of war, Burud Ghaln died, but it was not the enemy who killed him, he was betrayed by his closest ally. The people had lost faith in their leader and called a secret meeting with the leaders of the Harabians. The Harabians agreed to let the peoples leave the kingdom peacefully, save Burud Ghaln who would be executed. When they came to betray Burud, his closest ally pierced him in the back with his own sword, sending word to the Harabians that he had been slain in battle.”
“Why would they do that?” Yaru asked. “Kill him themselves? It’s betrayal the same as turning him over, but worse as his blood was on their hands!”
“Because that’s what love is.” Master Jrun said. “They knew Burud Ghaln would die for the land, and the people. They loved him for that and refused to let his body be tortured at the hands of his enemy. Better they saw he had a clean, swift death than the executions of Harabians, whose children he had slaughtered and whose land he had stolen. His blood was on their hands regardless of how they betrayed him, and they knew that. It was not an easy decision, but one they felt he would have agreed with and one that they felt forced to carry out. Each day the war lead to more death of their kin, the same as the Harabians. They mourned for his passing, they wept and thanked him for all of his services to our peoples and what was their country. After his death, our peoples were given boats and set out to sea. They became nomads of the sea and sailed for years, settling at ports for provisions and surviving off more fish than beef or mutton. They sailed into the ocean for three long years, the raging seas and the stormy gales were uncommon to the people who had only ever lived on land previously. Until at last, when their foods were growing short again, they reached an uninhabited land. Tausaii Kegurai.”
Yaru learnt about other histories among Jrun’s peoples, far back before Harabia was even inhabited when the people came from much more distant lands destroyed by fire and trembling earth. When she had learnt his ancestry, he questioned hers. Yaru only knew of her mother and father, so taught Master Jrun all she knew. He listened patiently and said how he had remembered her father, remarking him as a great warrior.
“I knew him only briefly in battle, when a war came to Tausaii Kegurai before you were born. A group of invaders came from the sea, corsairs and pirates who sailed on dark ships. They were trained in combat which had no art to it, nor beauty or delicacy as ours does. They were humans from the western land, the main land, and their exile to the sea displayed their disgrace and dishonour. Their skin was not like ours, their bodies different too, yet they are human the same. During one of the greatest battles of our town I witnessed your father’s skill in battle. He was a born leader, he could not be felled by any of those warriors nor so much as scratched. He moved with care and sturdiness but agility and swiftness too. I can say he was far greater than many of those soldiers on that day; he was there before the attackers came, he fended many more of them off than any other single man, and he stayed afterwards to help with the recovery. While other trained soldiers took action relentlessly and thoughtlessly, your father took time and had patience. He was a respectable warrior.”
Yaru had heard many tales of his glory, but had never seen him fight, nor known him to return from any such battles. Indeed the first time he set off to war was the last time she had seen him. It seemed to her as though returning from the battles was his fault.
Still, hearing how her father was made her feel a bit more confident of herself, feeling like this was the same blood which ran through her veins. With regards to her mother, Jrun could say little but recalled her as a beautiful woman, comparing only to the beauty of Yaru. There were many beautiful women on Tausaii Kegurai, there were many beautiful women just in Nakarui, so Yaru struggled to believe the flattery which Jrun offered, though he seemed sincere and, despite his praise of them both, he still seemed to have no interest in Yaru as a partner.
When they had covered ancestry, Master Jrun told Yaru of his religion. He pondered a while over her interest in his life and family more than her own; she seemed to have no interest in learning about her heritage, she had no idea even of what her parents’ religious views were. Regardless he shared his willingly.
He believed in rebirth after death, returning to the world to complete life as all the creatures and in all forms. The worthiness of his soul depended on the first of his creatures and the last, whether he would enjoy his time more or less. Yaru asked how a soul may prove worthy, he responded that an unworthy soul is one which kills without need or reason, who does not value life and instead disrespects it. “The respect of life is more than just mere words and avoiding slaughter. Respect does not mean do not kill, rather consider why you should kill first.” He himself admitted to having killed before, and consumed meat in his youth, though now he refused such foods and vowed only to use violence as a last resort.
The gods of Jrun looked like normal people to Yaru, only they had no evil in their lives; they seemed completely selfless, free souls, noble, benevolent, and seemed to Yaru as mystical as magic. There was Garfthi, who gave his life in place of his friend who was already doomed to die from disease, giving up many years that his friend may have a few more weeks or months, then there was Yonga who created the afterlife to keep his family together even after death, ‘For there are only so many creatures on the world which people may return as’ Jrun said. And Tari who created the world, but his sister Si was the creator of life.
Of course not all of Jrun’s gods were good; Hakka created many of the creatures of the world who spite humans in obedience of their master, then Garaan who lead children away to drown in the sea, their parents committing suicide in misery and desperation.
Jrun’s gods were countless and limitless to the reason of their godliness and their power. Of all the gods Jrun had, two were the most powerful, caught in an eternal fight with each other; the brothers Hona and Ruan.
Hona was the eldest of the two and was the only god capable of bringing the world into light again, but Ruan was left without power so sought the world to delve into war. The brothers disagreement spread into a war between gods, then even the brothers came together in an eternal fight, which had not ended to this day. Jrun believed that no will of any god was passed without the say of either Hona or Ruan; there was no death without Ruan’s approval, nor new life without Hona’s.
“Everything that I have, everything that I am, I owe to Hona.” Jrun once said. “All of my experiences, even my breath, I owe to him. Without him, I would not be alive. He gave me my life, and I am forever in his debt for that. Then one day Ruan will take it from me, and I will be a servant in death.”
It was not until she came nearby to the age of nineteen that Master Jrun brought Yaru into a clear section of the forest, sitting her beside some peach trees and before a shrine to an unfamiliar man. He sat beside her, his body then aged and almost prepared for death.
“I am old now, my child.” he whispered, scratching his beard. “And you have learnt the ways of my kindred.”
It was so: now, almost nineteen years of age, Yaru was trained as much as Jrun could teach her in martial arts. She could use most any weapon, including her bare hands and feet, she could lift what many men could not due to her experiences on the farmstead, and she was beyond the skill of many thieves in stealth: it was said by Master Jrun and the villagers that her footsteps were quieter than a cat’s, while her balance was incomparable. Yet despite all this her beauty and pure appearance, as sleek and graceful as a bird, was never forgotten. She was keen, ready, and well taught, but above all things respected life and the need to keep peace. This did not mean, however, that she was unwilling to take either.
“Yet even as you have proven yourself a finer warrior than even myself, your own master, I have one last lesson for you to learn. Perhaps this one is the simplest, or perhaps it is the most challenging. By your upbringing, I lean towards the latter.” Master Jrun said. “Our country is great, but our laws and our leaders are not. You know the laws of the land as well as I; it is forbidden for women to engage in combat, even the wielding of arms can lead to arrests. Some women have been arrested for carrying knives they used to cook, one was hung for carrying a fishing spear to her husband unescorted.”
“I am aware of that nonsense law.” Yaru said.
“The laws of our land greatly dominate men over women, equality has never been established…” Master Jrun said.
“Or considered.” Yaru interrupted.
“Regardless, the law stands in favour of male persons more than female. It is illegal to tutor a woman in martial arts, or to ask them to fight at all, even for young children’s sakes.” Master Jrun said. “I am old, I have no reason to fear death nor prison, but you are young and your life will be long, prosperous, and full of joy. You will have many children, you will live until you are old as I, maybe older with some luck. Women have been executed for less than learning it in this country, so my final lesson for you is one you must always obey and remember. Do not go against the law. You have learnt to fight, but you may never use the skills openly. Only use them if absolutely essential, even then as secretively as possible and make sure that if you are seen you can escape this accursed land. Tausaii Kegurai is my dear home and sooner would I die than leave it, but you must leave if you are discovered. This land will not forgive you for throwing a punch, yet you would be able to execute as easily.”
“You mean to say I’ve wasted years training for something I may never do?” Yaru asked.
“One day, perhaps, you may be able to use these skills openly. It is my wish that you do not rot in a jail cell, nor die by the hand of an executioner.” Master Jrun said. “I cannot force you to keep this rule, it is my will that you follow it. If you could obey the request of an old man, your old master, I would be eternally grateful. If you do not, I pity you.”
Yaru had learnt many things under the guidance of her master, but one thing he had never taught her was to respect him and his desires. He knew she would not disobey him, and she knew it too. She respected him more than most students would their masters, and so swore an oath not only to Jrun but to herself not to forget that lesson until her last days.
Not half a year later, after Yaru had turned nineteen, Master Jrun died from a fever suddenly. The doctors were unaware of his condition until the last hours, but they and Yaru were there when he died. Yaru buried him among his ancestors in the bamboo forest, the stone masons who had known Jrun for most of his life agreed to make a shrine, a statue hidden under a red tiled canopy which sat over his grave, and a stone was placed on the edge of the forest which commemorated his service to the town, placed just off the road for all the passers and townsfolk to see. He served the town as the bamboo cutter for longer than any previous, in his work alone they prospered and they created a reasonable trade deal. It was not until he died that the people began to realise how important he had been to the town.
In his death he had given many items away to strange people who Yaru had never met or heard of, some of whom she had thought Jrun had disliked. One of the fishermen who frequently complained about Jrun openly in the village was given a set of books, and all of the timber which had been cut ready was to be donated to the town for the erection of a new school! In his death, Jrun had revealed himself as very generous.
The majority of his estates remained, his home and lands (which Yaru had not realised consisted of over half the bamboo forest), he even owned a farm nearby to his brother’s though it was only used by a few shepherds. The farm he left to the shepherds to continue using rent-free, on the condition that only his brother or descendants of his may buy the farm back. Jrun’s brother accepted this, he had no desires for the farm as he gained age he found more difficulty in maintaining his own.
Yaru was surprised when Master Jrun left not only his entire fortune (what remained of it) but also his estate to Yaru, including the house and the woodland. Yaru had seen many things be taken away, but none of the armours nor weapons were taken, so she assumed they were left for her too. As for his brother, Jrun left nothing of value, instead only a few heirlooms of his family including a nodachi and a silver pendant. The remaining weapons were left in the house. None of the heirlooms apart from these two pieces seemed of any value at all, most of them were strange wooden items and pictures, a few scrolls and tomes were left to his brother too and an old woodworker’s plane.
It made Yaru feel all the more awkward: she could hardly say Jrun was not the sort of man to value wealth so much as history, having been given the wealth herself, nor could she offer any sympathy for Jrun’s brother else she seem disrespectful of his wishes. Yet the farmer seemed pleased with his inheritance, even such small items seemed to bring a level of joy to his heart. The pendant, he informed Yaru, had belonged to their mother. Jrun had told his brother than he used to suck the pendant as a child, and some of his first teeth marks still lay scratching the silver. As for the sword, which was well looked after and polished, it had belonged to the son of their greatest ancestor, who had used it against dragons, until one of the beasts fell the man.
Not long after Jrun’s death the people started to question Yaru’s ability to manage his estates, they said she was not worthy the land and that one of the men from the village aught to be the new bamboo cutter, yet she harvested more on her own than any single male cutter had done since Jrun’s glory days. Yaru knew the truth of the matter; they wanted Jrun’s land to build on and it was unacceptable that a woman should have a man’s job regardless. They argued their case and she argued hers, but even with their unjust laws she had broken no law nor were there any grounds to remove her from the site. She stayed through that summer, kept harvesting the branches to prove herself as strong and keen as any man, but when the ushered comments continued she grew tired of them and decided to leave.
She gave the land back to Jrun’s brother without asking for payment or expecting any; it seemed only right that he should own the land, especially due to the shrines and the ancestral importance of the land, and she knew he would keep it from being constructed on or changed. He insisted that she keep it but she refused, graciously. Instead he sent a group to manage the estates and keep the land safe from the spreading buildings.
When they had settled, she took the few possessions she had and made for the dock. A coin purse, a spare set of clothes, and a walking stick was all that she appeared to carry, but she carefully wrapped the clothes and walking stick together, concealing in the centre one item which she would have been forbidden on Tausaii Kegurai: a nagamaki, red handled with an oiled blade, one of the ancestral weapons of Jrun’s forefathers and one of her favourites among the swords. This was the only sword she took and the only weapon besides her stick, the rest were heirlooms of Jrun’s family which had not been left to his brother, but she had returned to him. For her selfless act of returning the homestead and the items to his family, the farmer blessed her and welcomed her as an honorary member of their family. Yaru could not have asked for any more and thanked him countless times.
Under the cover of the mist she made her way to the dock, no person stirring yet. It was the type of morning which made Yaru want to sleep for longer, yet as the first birds began to sing she could not have traded the bliss of the morning for all the wealth of the world. She began to see the country in a new light that morning, for the first time in a long while she noticed how beautiful it looked, the great mountains arising over the sheet of mist.
There were a few bargemen and fishermen in the docks preparing their ships; Yaru found one who was heading for Har, and some which seemed strange to her, inhuman creatures making for other lands; Zhar, Harabia, Nah, North Hammer and the likes among them. Yaru gave the bargeman heading for Har a few of the gold coins she carried, which seemed to satisfy him. He was a man from that kingdom and welcomed her onto the ship without a second thought, nor a care about the blade she carried.
And so Yaru began her journey, leaving not only the village but her country. In part she was saddened to see the misty mountains disappear from sight, but the promise of adventure seemed to allure her all the more once they came out to sea.