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Authors: Simon Higgins

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BOOK: The Wrath of Silver Wolf
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The gambler drew back his arm. At the same
time, the lady behind him heaved something long
and black around her body. Moon glanced at it.
With white knuckles the woman raised a heavy,
cone-shaped iron saucepan. A sickening, nearly
hollow
clunk
quickly followed. Jiro's head lolled on
his shoulders. His arm sagged, eyes became slits.

'Who did that?' Jiro asked quickly. He sank
to his knees. With a moan he fell forward, his
face hitting the ground hard. Moon scanned him
carefully. Unconscious.

'Here's
my
good luck charm for you!' The lady
dropped her weapon, leaned over Jiro and spat.
'Swine! Filthy gangster beast! Ten curses on every
part of your painted corpse!' She kicked one of
Jiro's legs. He twitched. 'Monster! Get gut worms
and die! Mindless wrecker! May the next dice you
roll . . . poke out your eyes!'

Moonshadow jumped down from the lip of the
well. 'Aw.' He elbowed Snowhawk. 'I'm glad she's
on our side.'

'That lady is pretty mad,' Snowhawk panted,
'and she won't be the only one. Let's get out of
here before people turn on
us
. That
next
town's
looking better and better.'

They crept around the well, stepping over the
motionless giant fused up to his great shoulder-blades
into its wall. Moon leaned over Wada,
checking him. Semiconscious but, somehow,
alive. Badly hurt, whether he felt it or not.
How
did he feel no pain? Surely it wasn't a shinobi
science? Whatever the cause, it hadn't helped
him win the day. Snowhawk passed a knowing
look over Wada. Moon knew what she was
thinking.

Pain was good, important. It alerted you that
you weren't winning. Warned that your tactics had
failed. Told you to quit so you could live to fight
again later. Operating without it had not helped
this mountain of a man defeat a slender opponent
like Moon.

He shook his head at Wada. Here lay a lesson
worth discussing with Mantis and Eagle. A weird
truth: pain was a warrior's valuable friend.

All around them, the locals were slowly
starting to move, glancing blankly at each other
and the devastated stalls. Their drawn expressions
implied mass shock. Perhaps this town didn't see
much trouble. Good! Then maybe they didn't
even have –

Snowhawk grabbed his wrist and pointed.
Moonshadow looked along her arm to the
incoming road. He groaned. He'd hoped in vain.
They
did
have a policeman.

A purposeful-looking inspector in official
robes, flanked by two burly samurai, approached
along the road. His eyes were already locked on
the chaos in the marketplace.

Moonshadow and Snowhawk darted away from
Wada and into a tight little crowd huddling in
the least damaged corner of the square. Stunned
faces turned to look at them as they pushed
past, heading for a narrow lane between two
buildings.

One person in the crowd had a singular
demeanour. Snowhawk paced right by him but
he caught Moon's attention with his stare. It was
constant, bold almost to the point of arrogance.
This fellow was young, perhaps just a few years
older than Snowhawk or Moon. He wore a dagger,
eye-catching clothes and a fancy city hairstyle,
long but untied. Make-up, too, so he obviously
followed all the latest urban fashions.

The youth was
so
remote and confident, he
might have been a shinobi, but for one factor.
Snowhawk hadn't sensed him, nor had Moon
himself felt a thing. So that was that.

He caught up with Snowhawk in the lane.
'Wait! You feel
any
shinobi energy?'

She grinned widely. 'None, just a vague sense
of being unpopular around here.'

He laughed with relief. It made her giggle as
she turned to move on.

'They went down that lane!' A man's deep
voice called from out in the square.

'You know what?' Moon started to run. 'You're
right. Let's
not
stay in this town.'

SEVEN
The kindness
of strangers

The middle-aged innkeeper smiled back at
Snowhawk as she led her to the room.

It was at the end of a long corridor on the river
side of the inn. Snowhawk counted the doors they
passed on the way there. Ten, which meant that
every room in this place was as tiny as that
booth
Moonshadow had just been given. She shrugged to
herself. It didn't matter. They were both exhausted,
he covered in bruises and nursing aching ribs. If
her room was big enough for a bedroll, it would
do. She sighed wearily. Besides, though it looked
oddly deserted tonight, this was the only inn in
town.

After travelling across country from the market
town, moving parallel to the north road, they'd
crept into this place just after sunset. Built on a
teeming river, it was a pretty, serene-looking town,
smaller than its neighbour. White-blossomed
cherry trees ran along the entire main street and
a great wooden millwheel turned beyond the last
building.

While hiding between narrow, thatched-roofed
cottages they'd overheard the locals excitedly
trading gossip. The market town's inspector and
his men had paid them a visit, searching for a gang
of deranged vandals responsible for disrupting
Market Day. Finding no unfamiliar faces or new
information in this town, they had given up and
returned south.

Patting the bun of grey-streaked hair on the
crown of her head, the lady stopped outside the last
door. She turned to Snowhawk and bowed, sliding
it open with one hand. The creases around her
soft eyes multiplied as she smiled warmly.

'There you are, dear. The quietest end of the
inn. You'll get a good night's sleep here.' She
covered her mouth and gave an eccentric little
titter. 'Your poor brother looked like he would
sleep anywhere, on a peak under thunderclouds,
maybe?' The innkeeper tittered again. 'So young
to be tramping so far, but I envy you both. What
freedom!'

Snowhawk bowed and stepped into the room.
It
was
tiny, lit by a single wall-mounted lamp, but
she was surprised to see that it wasn't empty. A
thick duck-down quilt lay folded in one corner.
Snowhawk's mouth twisted. She hadn't paid an
extra copper to add a quilt to the room rental.
But the spring nights were cold in these hills,
especially in places near water. That quilt would
be a welcome extra. She grinned at the thought of
it, deep and
soft,
above and below her.

The lady's eyes batted as they moved from the
quilt to Snowhawk.

'A little gift, no extra charge,' the woman
sighed. 'I'm a sentimental old thing.'

'Good lady, you are far from old.' Snowhawk
gave a grateful bow. 'Thank you for this wonderful
kindness, but why me? How do
I
make you feel
sentimental?'

The innkeeper looked wistful as she stepped
inside the room and closed the door.

'You look just like
me
when I was your age. That's
all.' She dropped her eyes humbly. 'Though I never
went travelling, looking for work at my brother's
side, like you. I've never left this village. I was born
here, and here I will die. No doubt, in this inn.'

A lump rose in Snowhawk's throat. This
poor woman was lonely. She probably had been
all her life. Snowhawk looked about, avoiding
the lady's eyes while she weighed a decision.
Why
not?
What harm could come from repaying a
kindness?

'Would you like to stay a while?' Snowhawk
offered gently. 'Talk with me?'

The lady's face lit up. 'You're very sweet, child.
But are you not also weary?'

'Yes, but I'd love some company. Just for a
while.' Snowhawk sank into the seiza position,
gesturing for the woman to also sit.

The innkeeper studied her with probing
maternal eyes. 'May I be very forward, Miss?'
Snowhawk frowned at the question but nodded
slowly. 'When you and that lad parted outside his
room, I saw each of you give the other a certain
glance . . .' She tittered. 'Forgive me. He's not
really your brother, is he?'

'Why do you ask?' Snowhawk felt a twinge of
irritation. This was too personal!

Staring down at the reed mat in front of her
knees, the lady shrugged. 'It's none of my business,
I know. But if the two of you happened to be in
some sort of trouble, on the run even . . .' She
looked up, tears in her eyes. 'I would let you both
hide here.'

Snowhawk met the woman's gaze and her own
chin began to tremble as she sensed the depth of
feeling behind this remarkable offer. This lady,
a total stranger, was reliving her unhappy life –
or at least trying to – through Snowhawk. How
generous – and how sad. Her vision swam as she
fought off tears of her own.

At once Snowhawk felt that she could guess
the woman's history intuitively.

Perhaps this lady and a youth she had loved had
tried to flee disapproving families. Maybe one was
peasant, the other samurai by birth, and none in
this small town would tolerate a match that mixed
castes. Whatever the reasons, they hadn't escaped;
this gentle soul had lost her match. Almost as
tragically, she had wound up a prisoner . . . to
this inn.

No wonder she had said so vehemently, 'What
freedom!' She had never known it.

It was time to take a little chance. Snowhawk
wiped her eyes and nodded. Since joining the Grey
Light Order she'd had two very satisfying girl-talks
with Heron. But they had left her hungry for
more. This gracious lady, perhaps a stand-in parent
the kami had sent her way, might also give
great
motherly advice. Snowhawk sniffed. Yes, though
in seeking it, she would have to be careful what
she revealed. No
details
.

'You are so very kind.' Snowhawk touched her
forehead to the matting. As she straightened up
she saw the lady blush at the deep bow, normally
given only to warlords or highly respected
teachers. 'In fact, we need no haven, but I would
still be grateful to talk.' She waved vaguely at the
door. 'About him, I suppose. Him and me and
things.'

'And I would be honoured to listen.' The lady
wiped her eyes. 'Perhaps even to offer advice.' She
looked demurely through her wet lashes. 'If only
an old fool's advice.'

Snowhawk hung her head with shyness as
she began. 'It's true, he's not my brother but we
did . . . we do . . . work together.' The innkeeper
nodded patiently. 'When we first met, he really
helped me out. There was . . . anyway, I was in
danger, and he came to my aid when I needed it.
Since then, we've worked closely . . .' She looked
away, suddenly too self-conscious to go on.

'You have a crush on him, don't you?' The
innkeeper gave a cheeky wink. 'He's a handsome
little squirrel, I'll give you that. A handsome but
strong face, I'd say.'

Covering her blushing cheeks, Snowhawk
nodded. 'But lately, I feel that I've failed him,
failed our friendship. Failed even the –' she caught
herself – 'the people we've been working for.' Her
stare fell into her lap. 'I've been angry. Over things
done to me.'

The woman folded her arms slowly. 'So either
the boy or those you both worked for saw your
anger.' She watched Snowhawk nod. 'Did you lose
control?'

'To my shame, yes. But only
he
saw it.'
Snowhawk looked up quickly, her voice breaking.
'And he covered for me. Kept it a secret. He hasn't
even said a word to
me
about it yet, but I know I've
disappointed him. Betrayed him!'

The first tear rolled down her cheek. She forced
herself to sit stiffly, breathe more slowly, regain
control. Suddenly it all felt crazy. Why was she
turning to a total stranger?

'Poor girl.' The innkeeper shook her head.
'This will make you feel better . . . a little truth,
a little straight talk between women, neh?' Her
expression grew firm. 'If he's said nothing, he's
still watching out for you, caring for you. Nobody
continues to do that when someone has
really
let
them down. They back off. No, for now at least, I
wouldn't worry about things with him. What you
do
have to work on, is this
anger
you speak of.'

'You're so right,' Snowhawk said. 'I know it in
my heart, even as you say it.'

'Good, then listen to this and remember it.'
The lady thumbed over her shoulder. 'Hear the
river? It flows, fed by springs and snow melting up
in the mountains, no matter what the season. No
matter what the weather. It's like ki, the life force
itself, neh?'

'True,' Snowhawk murmured, wiping a cheek.
Since she spoke of ki, the lady had to be a healer.
That would fit. No wonder she was skilled at
helping others to open up.

'The river also teaches us something of how to
live life
, too. It always flows on. It accepts the rocks
it was born in, the ones it was thrown against,
then moves on.' The innkeeper pointed directly
at the spot between Snowhawk's eyes. 'It's natural
to get angry if you are wronged. But not to trap
black energy in
there
. So don't. Forgive who you
need to: yourself, them, the dog that bit you, the
gods themselves. And be like the river. Find a way
to just
flow on
.'

Snowhawk filled her chest and slowly blew
out a long breath. 'That's the wisest advice I've
ever heard. Thank you so much. For everything.
Forgive me if now, I'm . . .'

'Trying not to yawn?' The lady gave her gentle
titter. 'Come, come, I can see you need to sleep
now.' She hesitated. 'May
I
ask
you
a small favour,
sweet child?'

'I'm hardly sweet.' Snowhawk beamed at her.
'But ask. What can I do for you?'

The innkeeper squirmed. 'May I . . . tuck you
in? As if you were my daughter?'

After forcing a new lump back down her throat,
Snowhawk nodded warmly.

The lady lovingly prepared her bed. She
positioned, folded and then fluffed the quilt into
a big, puffy envelope that almost reached to the
edges of the little room. Snowhawk smiled with
anticipation. This just might be her best night's
sleep in
years
.

Travelling as lightly as possible, she had brought
no sleeping clothes. Snowhawk took off her pack
and roll, keeping the sword hidden, and turned
in, wearing her uniform to bed for extra warmth.
Once she was snuggled inside the quilt, the kindly
innkeeper literally tucked her in, smoothing its
top edge into a perfect line that ran under her
chin. Snowhawk grinned up at her. This was like
being a child again. No, not again. Childhood had
never been like this. Her face grew solemn. It was
like being a child for the
first time
.

'One last thing,' the woman said earnestly.
'And I want you to remember this too, for as long
as you live.' Snowhawk nodded keenly. The lady
smiled. 'Despite what I do for a living, you should
really listen to my advice. Take it on its own
merits, neh?'

'Yes, of course. I promise I always will,'
Snowhawk pledged.

'Good.' The innkeeper stood up and looked
down at her. 'That's settled then.'

Without warning she bounded nimbly onto
the quilt. As her feet landed, each perfectly on
target, they stretched the quilt's top edge tight
across Snowhawk's throat.

Wide-eyed with shock, heart pounding in
terror, Snowhawk thrashed around and tried to
kick upwards through the quilt. It was impossible
to raise her knees anywhere near enough. She
tried to raise her arms. Immediately they became
tangled. In seconds she realised that the quilt
had been folded ingeniously. It was a restful-looking
trap
.

Looming above her, the woman maintained
balance effortlessly, riding the tiny waves of each
struggle with ease. Abruptly she thrust both hands
into her kimono.

As Snowhawk spluttered and bucked, already
gasping for air, the innkeeper's face changed.
All traces of kindliness left it and every soft line
became harsh. The streaks of grey vanished from
the lady's hair and her eyes grew larger.

BOOK: The Wrath of Silver Wolf
9.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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