Shrouded Samurai.
Copyright 2015, 2018 by Raymond Johnson. Second edition.
Cover photo provided by Dolgachov. (www.iStockphoto.com).

Dedicated to everyone at the Kindle forums for all the mutual encouragement even whilst not discussing book related matters.

"The successful warrior is the average man with focus." - Bruce Lee.

After being captured during a raid on their village a group of civilians consisting of men, women, boys and girls have been captured and are due to be executed the following morning. The queen visits her captives and they plead clemency but she responds with nothing but taunts and abuse. Their only hope is that the legendary Masked Ninja will rescue them in time and help defend what remains of their village.

Told from the point of view of a frightened boy who pins all his hopes on the ninja's appearance.

 

 

Chapter 1 - Caged Prisoners

With all the yelling and screaming among the chaos it was difficult to make out what was happening as we were all forcefully shoved into a small cage in the corner of the large open hall. It wasn't a prison cell designed to hold prisoners at all but rather an animal's cage that must have once belonged to a beast that entertained guests of the palace. There were about a dozen of us, crammed together, with no dignity or care for our well being.

I winced as someone trod on my foot. My worn, soft leather boots were already in a dilapidated state and offered no protection against the full weight of an adult. I couldn't even lift my leg to attend the injury for there was simply standing room only within the confined space. Closing my eyes I had to accept the throbbing pain while at the back of my mind I also had to accept our likely, soon to be, execution. This wasn't a conventional war, it was a massacre, and the only reason we weren't already dead was because the queen's soldiers were busy slaughtering others from our village.

"Shut your yapping!" Yelled a mean brutal guard as he heaved the cage door closed pushing us up tightly within the confines of the metal bars.

There were gasps and screams along with the sound of weeping. Every slight movement of each of us pushed against another prisoner exaggerating its effect and squashing us even further. I focused on remaining still, but with the large man behind me and the other adults around it was difficult to maintain composure. I would likely slip to the floor and be trampled underfoot before daybreak.

"I can't breathe," a heaving female voice called out from among the cramped group of prisoners.

"That's none of my concern!" Another guard said with a gruff tone of voice.

I then heard a jingle of keys before the distinct sound of the door being locked. Someone let out a yelp as the bars jiggled.

"You can't leave us locked up in here!" One among us let out a muffled yell from the confines of the small cage, "We have rights!"

A guard began to let out a loud exaggerated laugh before the rest of them joined in with fake jollity humiliating us further.

"Discuss it with the queen," the first guard said, "She'll be along soon enough."

The guards then made their way across the large hall and out through the main doors knowing full well we had no hope of escape.

My legs already ached and I wished I could sit but there was simply no room. I wondered if the guards were intending to leave us locked up until we died.

 

Chapter 2 - The Queen

It must have been over two hours before the main doors of the hall opened again and in walked a group of guards accompanying the queen. It was difficult to see her from my viewpoint so I tried my best to squeeze through the group of prisoners around me. I hoped the queen was reasonable and would soon put an end to this mess.

"The sooner we deal with this the better," I heard the queen speaking with the guards as she made her way closer, "To use the palace as a stockade is obscene."

"The cells are still packed full," one of the guards told her, "But we'll process this lot first as it's a higher priority."

"This hall needs to be spick and span by the end of the week for the victory celebrations," the queen added, "Make sure it gets done, and get rid of the cage too, it's unseemly."

"Very well," the guard responded.

As the queen approached she suddenly stopped causing her footwear to squeak against the stone marble floor. The guards, at least four of them, stood at her side, one of which was armed with an axe as well as the usual long sword. The queen simply gazed her eyes at us all crammed into that tiny cage. I hoped she was going to be shocked by our predicament and show leniency.

"Urgh! They've stunk this place out already," she remarked while placing her lace gloved hand under her nose in a daintily fashion, "Absolute savages."

The queen then opened her mouth ready to say something again but was interrupted by a voice coming from one of the prisoners.

"Can you blame us?" He mumbled, "We're packed like arrows in a quiver."

The queen stared at him then tilted her head to one side. There was a long pause of tense quiet as everyone waited for something to happen. Even her guards appeared confused.

"Did I ask you to speak?" She asked the prisoner.

There was another long pause as she awaited an answer, but as soon as the prisoner responded she interrupted him.

"You speak when I darn well tell you to and not at any other time!" She snapped.

The queen looked beautiful in her silky white robes and fine black leather shoes. The splendour of her jewels around her neck reflected within the lights of the hall and it was clear she was a woman of taste as well as wealth. Her crown was refined, made of gold containing diamonds and sapphires, yet its small and light appearance made me feel it was something she wore daily while keeping her main crown reserved for formal occasions.

Something about her demeanour gave the impression that she was intelligent and well educated, yet her personality appeared false, as though she was intentionally behaving evil. I wondered if she was acting that way as a performance to impress the guards, but then again maybe she gained pleasure from behaving that way and was a genuinely bad person. My suspicions were proved with what she had to say next.

"Do we have enough hanging ropes?" She said turning to one of her guards but making sure we all overheard.

"We've got plenty of ropes but only four gallows," he replied in a gruff tone, "But it's not a problem they'll just have to wait their turn. Do the young'uns last because they often get messy."

"Messy?" The queen asked him.

"You can't hang a kid without weighing down the feet first and it sometimes goes awry when the heads detach from..." the guard replied.

The queen shuddered and quickly shook her shoulders.

"Urgh, spare me the details," she quickly said interrupting him, "Just so long as it's done is all I care about."

A child within our cage started crying which caused the queen to approach the bars. The leather shoes of the queen trod firmly, one slow step at a time, against the marble floor which I was sure was intentional to intimidate us further.

"You cannot execute us we've committed no crime!" Yelled a voice among us which the queen ignored as she peered toward the girl who was whimpering repressed tears that she tried her best to hold in.

The queen wiggled her finger at her.

"You there," the queen said in a loud whisper, "How old are you?"

Everyone tried to shove up to give the girl room to approach the front of the cage. It was difficult and I almost fell down only to be held up by the man standing behind me. The queen waited patiently.

"I'm... nine," the girl responded as she trembled peering through the bars at the queen who looked down at her.

"Your people are nothing but savages," the queen told her in a direct matter of fact tone, "Your father a barbarian and your mother a whore. I'll be doing you a favour putting you to death, therefore out of your misery."

Within an instant the queen jumped back with total shock plastered upon her face. I hadn't fully witnessed what had taken place but from the moisture upon her cheek it looked as though the girl had spat in her face. The queen quickly wiped it using her sleeve.

"You little runt come here!" The queen screeched as she put her hands between the bars and grabbed the girl tightly by the wrist who responded by screaming loudly.

"Get your hands off her!" Yelled one of the male prisoners, "Royalty or not, you do not strike a child!"

The queen quickly backed off and paced heavily in her leather shoes from side to side at the front of the cage, her arms crossed and her face aflame with anger. Her own guards stared wondering what to do.

"Who said that?!" She demanded, "Get out here now!"

She turned towards one of her guards.

"Well don't just stand there twiddling your thumbs fetch the key!" She ordered.

Without hesitating her guard quickly ran across the hall and out through the large double doors.

The queen then turned back to face us, her cheeks red with anger, her eyes wide while awaiting her guard to return. She appeared impatient, tapping her fingers against her arms while they were still in a crossed position, before tutting loudly. She then quickly hurried down the hall and through the doors leaving both ourselves and the rest of the guards wondering what she intended to do next.

There was silence, other than the sound of the young girl sobbing, as we kept our ears on tenterhooks listening out at the other sounds within the palace. Within a matter of minutes the queen calmly headed back into the hall, with a pleased look upon her face, carrying a large beverage container with the occasional waft of steam emanating from its contents.

"None of you have eaten so out of the kindness of my heart I offer you my broth," she said in a cheeky tone before flinging the contents of the container into the cage.

We all screamed, even the people that it didn't hit, due to shock more so than pain. The steaming hot soup splashed, with some hitting me on the arm causing me to take a tumble along with a lot of the other prisoners as we piled on top of one another. The skin on my forearm tingled with pain as though I had been stung by a very large bee but I was more concerned with my sore foot as someone trod on it yet again. The more I struggled to get up the more people tumbled on top of me due to the slippery wet broth on the marble floor.

The queen laughed with hysterics at the farcical spectacle then immediately ceased, changing her expression to a serious one again. She then turned and started making her way out of the hall.

"You'll all be executed on the morrow," she said over her shoulder, "No exceptions."

 

Chapter 3 - Nightfall

A few hours later darkness fell. A dim light emitted from a few oil lamps that the guards carried at the hall entrance, but other than that we were in near total darkness within our confined cage.

I was still standing, now with my face pressed against the bars, with my forearm stinging and my legs numb. Part of me felt relief at the thought of our eventual execution because every moment within the cage felt like torture. I was one of the younger ones, most likely due to be executed near last, I just hoped I didn't have to witness the others being hanged ahead of me.

There was the sound of weeping from some of the prisoners but I tried my best to remain brave and prayed that something would happen to release us from our misery. Closing my eyes I said a silent prayer, not just for myself and the prisoners around me, but for all our village, praying for war to end.

"I need to sit down," a boy near my side whispered at no one in particular, "My legs are throbbing."

"All of ours are," someone responded.

"Lean against someone, that's what I've been doing," a woman's voice said.

The boy did exactly as she suggested and there was a sudden movement within the cage which had the effect of a large man pushing against my back. I had nowhere else to move as I was practically crushed against the bars in front.

 

Chapter 4 - A Hero Of The Night

The palace grew colder as the night wore on, yet with so many people crammed around me I had yet to fully feel it. My thighs throbbed while my feet felt totally numb within my worn leather boots. I was sure to fall over the moment we were released from confinement.

It was then that I realised the reason as to the coldness of the palace, a window was open, or possibly even taken out. How could a window pane have been removed in silence? I wondered. I stared at it trying to gauge if it was my imagination but there was clearly a breeze blowing through. Even if the window had simply fallen out there should have been a noise. Licking my lips first I took a deep breath getting some fresh air into my lungs still pondering as to how the window had vanished.

There was then the sound of a scuffle in the distance while the oil lamps near the hall entrance began to flicker from side to side causing the shadows to dance. A deep male groan could be heard and the sound of a thud. The hall doors quietly opened then closed again and someone approached carrying an oil lamp held high.

Some of the prisoners at my side began mumbling as I tried to get a good look at the figure heading in our direction towards the cage. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the light. I could see a figure within a cloak, their features hidden behind a shroud, with just the reflection of a mask visible within the dim light of the lamp. My heart began to beat more heavily not believing my eyes while hoping with all my might that I wasn't mistaken. I stared at the hooded figure concentrating, frightened that my assumption as to their identity may be wrong, while slowly realising this was the miracle I had prayed for. The mumbling of the prisoners around me appeared to quieten as the figure drew closer.

"It's the Masked Ninja!" I cried out.

With that everyone in the cage let out cheers of joy only to be immediately silenced when the Masked Ninja silently raised his finger in front of his concealed face.

He calmly removed a key from the pocket of his cloak and unlocked the cage then stepped to one side as we all tried to clamber out at once.

"Don't panic, take your time," the Masked Ninja said in a heavily disguised whisper.

It took us quite some time to remove ourselves while trying to get the feeling back in our numb legs. I had no choice but to sit on the hard marble floor, kick off my boots and wiggle my toes. It was taking a long time but I would surely fall if I forced myself to walk. I firmly rubbed my legs and feet willing them to return to life.

I stared at the ninja. His beautiful long silk black robe had a very sharp Samurai sword attached within its belt with some droplets of blood upon its blade. Under his hood he wore a black mask covering his features that gave the illusion that there was nothing under the robe. He looked frightening yet heroic at the same time like a friendly ghost from the spirit world who had come to save us.

To my surprise the Dark Ninja headed towards the large doors of the hall and waited. Was he really expecting us to leave through the heavily guarded palace itself? Surely the window would have been the best escape, but I then realised under the circumstances getting so many exhausted people through a small window would have proved all the more difficult. I just hoped one ninja was enough to protect us all.

Once we were all steady on our feet we made our way over to the ninja who heaved open the doors revealing a number of dead guards within the dim light of the oil lamps. We looked on in stunned silence as we stepped around the bodies and continued down the hall with the ninja ahead of us.

"Joanie!" A man among our group called out in a loud whisper before running ahead toward another group of prisoners waiting in the hall.

They embraced as the rest of the prisoners, about six of them in all, had the look of pure joy upon their faces whilst trying to remain quiet. No doubt they were as pleased to see us as we were to see them, and no doubt the Masked Ninja had been busy that night.

After a number of hugs, handshakes and whispered exchanges of joyful words between us the Masked Ninja raised his finger in front of his face telling us to calm down then very light on his feet made his way further down the passage. We followed placing our full trust in his judgement. He had already placed the oil lamp onto the floor so we were heading into darkness.

 

Chapter 5 - Escape To Freedom

All of us prisoners trembled while following the Masked Ninja out of the palace gates, into the crisp night air, and finally to freedom. I was terrified that we'd be spotted by more guards, and while I had my full faith in the Masked Ninja I still knew he wasn't indestructible. It was certainly possible we'd have a bloody fight on out hands if we were outnumbered.

The sight of four sets of gallows caused a shiver down my spine as we all carefully crept out of the palace grounds towards the forest beyond. I could only imagine the horrors of what had awaited us giving my heart of warm feeling of relief at being spared such a fate.

"Do you think we're being followed?" Someone among us asked in a timid whisper.

Everyone glanced around but it appeared we were all safe for the time being. The Masked Ninja continued ahead as we followed on from behind.

I let out a breath then suddenly inhaled sharply as the Masked Ninja raised his hand indicating for us to stop, there were voices ahead. He removed his sword, raising it above his head as he slowly crept forward. The rest of us remained as quiet as a mouse, crouching as low as possible, as we saw the Masked Ninja vanish into the treeline. The silence was broken by nothing but the gentle breeze. Within a few short moments the Masked Ninja returned and replaced his sword into his belt. I couldn't tell if he had made a kill or if the voices had simply passed by, either way I felt safe within his presence.

"Come on," he whispered quietly waving his hand.

We continued to follow the ninja in the direction of the dense trees of the forest ahead and onward towards home.

 

Chapter 6 - Back To Our Village

We continued to walk well into the night, on and on, me in my sore bare feet, until the sun began to rise. Some of the younger children were being carried including the girl who the queen had struck who was now being carried by the Masked Ninja himself. I too wished someone would carry me but I was perhaps considered a little old for that. In fact everyone was exhausted and I wasn't sure how much longer we could travel before having to stop to rest. My sore feet had become encrusted with mud making each footstep all the more heavy. My shoulders too felt heavy, as though I was carrying a great weight pushing down on me, causing me to walk in a contorted fashion. It was only my belief in the Masked Ninja that kept me going. He knew we should press on and not risk danger by resting.

"There's a stone bridge nigh on ahead," one of our group said while pointing up a small grassy hill, "It leads to a cavern then a small valley which is just a couple of miles from the village."

I let out an internal sigh of annoyance at the thought of having to walk uphill, yet at the same time was pleased that we would soon be home. I dreaded the thought that there may not be much left of our village to return to. In fact our small group, less than two dozen of us, may prove to be the only survivors of this terrible war.

Once we approached the stone bridge, and its cobblestones which felt cold underfoot, the Masked Ninja stopped which caused everyone in our group to immediately do the same in fear of upcoming danger. Luckily that wasn't the reason why the ninja had stopped.

"This is where I must take my leave," he said in a loud whisper as he placed the girl he was holding onto the ground causing her to wake from her half slumber, "You'll be safe for now but I can't hold back the forces of your enemies indefinitely, so I suggest you and your people leave your village and find somewhere else to settle."

It wasn't what we expected to here, we hoped the ninja would help defend us, so one of our group approached the Masked Ninja.

"But then that vile bitch queen would win!" He said firmly causing others to nod their heads in agreement.

The Masked Ninja slowly shook his head from side to side with a look of saddened disagreement. He then raised his hands against his face and removed his mask leaving just a veil beneath to hide his features. However from the unmistakable bright eyes the ninja's identity was revealed.

"I only wish life were that simple," the Masked Ninja responded in a deep whisper, "But survival is more important than who wins. You need to swallow your pride and move on."

Everyone stared at the Masked Ninja's unmasked face revealing the very evil queen from which we had been fleeing.

"I'll hold back my forces for as long as I can," she said in her usual tone of voice, "But when they launch another offensive against your village I hope for your sake that you've already abandoned it. Now I wish you good day."

She re-masked her face then walked into the opposite direction leaving everyone bewildered as to her true intentions.

THE END.

 

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