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I J Parker

Black Arrow

PROLOGUE

THE FATAL ARROW

EchigoProvince, Japan:

Leaf-TurningMonth (September), A.D. 981

The evening sun slanted through the branches of tall cedars and splashed across abloodred maple on the other side of the clearing. From the valley below came sounds of horses and shouts of men.

A young woman emerged from thetrees, leading a child-a boy, no more than three years old, in bright blue silkand with his hair childishly parted and tied into loops over his ears. Theyoung woman was slender and beautiful, and dressed in a costly white silk gown embroidered about the hem and full sleeves with nodding golden grasses and purple chrysanthemums. Her long hair, which almost reached the hem of herdress, was fastened with a broad white silk ribbon below her shoulders.

In the middle of the clearingthe child pulled free to chase a butterfly. The young woman called outanxiously, then laughed and ran after him.

From the thicket, Death watched the two with hot eyes, clasping the large bow with his left hand, while theright slowly reached over his shoulder to pull the long, black-feathered arrowfrom the quiver slung across his back.

The boy lost the butterfly andturned toward the woman, who sank to her knees and spread her arms wide toreceive the child.

Death bared his teeth. He was close, his bow powerful, the arrow special. With luck it might take only the one shot. He placed it into its groove, pulled back firmly, and aimed.

With a shout of laughter the boy hurled himself into the waiting arms, and Death released the longsteel- tipped missile. He watched as it found its mark just below the silken ribbon in the woman’s black hair, heard the muffled blow clearly in the sudden silence, and watched as she fell forward, slowly, burying the small figure of the child beneath her. Heavy silken hair slipped aside, and a large red stain appeared on her white silk gown, spreading gradually from the black-featheredarrow like a crimson peony opening its petals in the snow.

Even the birds had fallen silent.

Death remained frozen for a few moments, watching, listening. But there was neither cry nor movement under thewhite silk, and he slowly lowered the bow.

The silence was broken by asmall bird’s voice, then by the humming of insects and distant shouts of the hunting party in the valley. Death quickly left the clearing.

ONE

THE OUTPOST

Echigo Province, Japan

Gods-AbsentMonth (November), A.D. 1015

Women armed with hunting bows rode single file down the steeply sloping track toward the dark huddle of buildings on the plain below. They hunched into heavy clothing against a sharp wind that swept across the black- and-gray landscape of rock, evergreens, and sere grasses. Below them the black roofs of the town were a blot in a wintry plain, and beyond the plain a pewter ocean stretched towarda distant line where it melted into the murky grayness of low clouds. A highway ran along the shore. Behind the horsemen rose mountains, their tops hidden ingray vapor.

The prospect was dismal.

Most of the town straggled along the black line of the highway, which looked not unlike a dead snake witha large rat bulging its middle. The rat bulge contained the tribunal and asmall temple, surrounded by low, steep- roofed houses-the center of Naoetsu,capital of Echigo province.

This was the rough north country, won only recently from its barbaric inhabitants and not yet fully civilized. In the short summers, the plain between the mountains and the ocean was green with fields of rice, ramie, and beans, and the ocean dotted with fishing boats. Echigo was a fertile province, but now it prepared for the long winter, when a thick blanket of snow covered the land, and men and beasts livedlike bears inside their homes until the snow melted in the spring.

The rider in front, a muscular man with a neatly trimmed graying beard and the sadness in his eyes that attracts women, looked out at the choppy sea and up at the roiling sky. The wind was bitterly cold. He called over his shoulder, “Looks like snow.”

“Smells like it, too.” His younger companion in the bearskin coat gave a shiver and pulled his handsome face back into his collar like a turtle. A string of birds dangled from eitherside of his shaggy pony’s neck. “Nothing like we expected, is it, Hito?” His voice was muffled by the fur.

“Few things are. The master wassent here to set things right.”

“It’s another trap, I bet,”grumbled the young man into his bearskin. His name was Tora, or “Tiger.” He had chosen it years ago when his birth name had become a problem. Fifteen years Hitomaro’s junior and from peasant stock, he had served their master longer andwas closer to him. Hitomaro-Hito for short-had only joined them a few monthsago in the capital, along with his friend Genba.

“How so?” asked Hitomaro.

“Reminds me of Kazusa. He was meant to fail there, too, but he was hot to succeed, sure it would make his career. They sent him on a wild goose chase, hoping he’d screw up. He gave them a black eye instead.”

“This time his friends got himthe assignment.”

“Don’t you believe it. This ismuch worse. They’re letting him fill in for some prince who’s taking his easein the capital and raking in most of the income. Only this time they made surethey tied both the master’s hands behind his back so he couldn’t defendhimself. And then they hobbled his feet so he couldn’t get away. What gets meis he’s all fired up again anyway.”

“Then he’ll succeed just like last time.”

“With just the three of us?When the whole province is about to rise up in arms against him?”

“You don’t know that. And weare four. You forgot Seimei.”

“Amida, brother! That old man’snever held a sword or a bow. Even her ladyship can at least ride a horse.”

“Seimei is smart. Stop complaining, Tora, and let’s move on. We’ll have to cook the birds tonight.”

“Heaven help us,” muttered Tora. “I wish we could make Genba do it. He likes food.”

Hitomaro, who had reached levelground, urged his horse into a trot. He called back, “Genba eats. He doesn’t cook.”

Tora followed. If the truthwere known, he was by nature an optimist but he hid his confidence in hopes of impressing the older and more worldly wise Hitomaro with his experience.

On the outskirts of the city they encountered a disturbance at a mangy hostel called the Inn of the Golden Carp. The place was, despite its fancy name, a mere collection of low hovels,the sort that serves bad food in skimpy portions but generous helpings of vermin.

“Wonder what’s going on there?”Tora’s face emerged from his bearskin as if he smelled excitement.

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