She lay under the old Elm trying to ignore the red and grey squirrels; they were arguing again about her she was completely sure. Well arguing over who was going to break the ‘oh so important’ news to her – whatever squirrels deemed important news anyway.
She wasn’t supposed to be this far away from the main house. She wasn’t supposed to be in the forest either. Ghost coyotes had been seen roaming the hillsides again; in the day time no less. Grandfather had sternly forbidden her from coming past the mirror pond.
But the Princess loved the old Elm and she knew he the old Elm had a soft spot her. She wasn’t specifically in the forest, though she was past the mirror pond. The old Elm stood just outside the forest, couple of hundred feet from the tree line like a sentinel for the forest creatures. Besides today the sun was warm and the Elm was telling her stories from ages past before the ghost coyotes bled through from ‘beyond’.
The old Elm was really old and really huge with a colossal trunk and titanic limbs; a mountain of wood, a leviathan of solid protection. The old Elm spoke deep in a loamy whisper that soothed her heart almost like a green lullaby. As Grandfather Elm whispered in her mind, she dozed; seeing images of a forgotten time when in this very spot had been tall soft rolling hills, full of wonderful strange trees and beautiful sparkly rocks jutting proudly everywhere.
Grandfather Elm unfolded fantastical scenes of huge hawks that nested in the boughs of the strange trees taller than any hill, of the huge dragonflies large enough to carry her away and of course he showed her naughtier squirrels that scampered through the branches of these mountainous trees.
The Princess came to herself suddenly for not only had Grandfather Elm grown silent she felt two sets of eyes peering from anxious furry faces peeping over her reclining form. Finally the smaller grey squirrel piped up, “Your highness, you must attend quickly. We are sure a great ghost coyote approaches from the east and he cannot be dissuaded from his direction,” the poor squirrel chattered in her skin.
“Hurry, Hurry Princess, up in Grandfather’s boughs. There is no time to run” the red squirrel squeaked.
“Yes child” Grandfather Elm boomed in everyone’s mind “up quick, the Cold One approaches”.
In almost comical haste the two squirrels attempted to help the Princess up into the great Elm. Fear abounded in the squirrels as one sought to push and the other to pull. Yet the Princess was calm seeking a foot hold on the rough old bark. Suddenly Grandfather Elm lowered a mighty branch, scooping the Princess up higher. She was not too high that she could not see into the forest or jump down with injury, yet she was high enough no ghost coyote no matter how great could reach her.
The squirrels scurried higher up in Grandfather Elm; fear was not the only reason. The sentry crows always had their best lookouts in the very top branches of Grandfather Elm. Sentry crows meant information.
Curiosity stirred in the Princess as she rested her back against the great trunk of the old Elm. She knew she was safe from everything, even the lightning from the sky feared Grandfather Elm. She had seen much in her short life and had much done to her when in the silver cages; no she was not afraid and yes she definitely wanted to see this ‘Cold One’. Grandfather Elm chuckled in her mind ‘You will dear one you will!”
The grey squirrel scampered down to the branch above her whispering “he comes, he comes Princess. Gisella the rookery lookout says he is alone, a ronin. This makes him more dangerous – be careful and don’t let her fall Grandfather.” This last warning was leveled at the great Elm, as if he would let the tiny human fall from his great boughs.
The forest became suddenly very still, a small deer flitted through the underbrush followed by a skunk and rabbit scurrying from the east. In fear a small flock of quail fluttered up barely missing the trees in their desire to flee.
The silence pressed on the forest and the fearless child like a relentless weight. Through the trees the Princess glimpsed movement, like a fog or mist keeping pace with the force pressing on her mind and heart unchallenged.
Suddenly the sound of a cracked whip snapped through her small frame; with the rapidity of thought the pressure on her mind and heart were gone, vanished completely. Grandfather Elm was crooning an ancient hymn, feeding her strength.
A ghostly voice strong yet silky echoed through the trees “excellent Highness, excellent control. I am very pleased to meet you.”
A magnificent snowy coyote seemed to materialize around the base of the nearest tree at the edge of the forest. Taller, much taller than a normal coyote he was yet slim and sleek with an elegant head and tapered muzzle. Eyes like liquid silver sought he eyes of the Princess in the branches of the ancient Elm.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sagura Ronin, Shadow Iron Clan soldier from the Land of Painful Illumination,” clipped the ghost coyote with exaggerated elegance as he executed a mock bow.
As Sagura brought his head back up the Princess spied a pale metallic chain nestled in the snowy ruff of this ronin ghost. An etched medallion hung from this ghostly metal with just a flash of impossible blue streaking for a moment then was hidden again.
The granddaughter of the Dragon Lord flashed her black eyes and sparks danced around her fingers unbeknownst to her as she demanded imperiously “What dost though want of me Sagura of the Shadow Iron Clan?”
“Just a word your highness, just a word – advice for your young self and perhaps to help you,” Sagura responded.
“Careful Dragon Princess” the warning came from the old forest Badger who had been secretly watching the approach of Sagura.
“All the land knows the ghost coyotes are mercenaries conjured to this realm to do the dirty work of other spirits and evil humans. This one must be particularly evil for he is an admitted ronin.”
The Princess had heard the term before she had always figured it mean alone. The Badger moved further from his hole as if reading the Princess’ mind he spoke again “it means he is clan-less, homeless and without a leader!”
“Now, now great Badger father,” Sagura corrected “true we hire out to those who need our particular set of skills. However we have rules, traditions and yes honor. ”
“Ha honor,” rumbled Badger “Honor is not a term the other creatures use for your kind, honor among yourselves I even doubt that as well.”
“Don’t worry your highness, master Badger makes it sound like we are hideous fiends. However, we are very loyal to those who employ us.”
“Yes” sneered Badger “honor among cutthroats and thieves ha!” Badger came further from his freshly dug hole, “and you did style yourself as a ronin did you not whelp?”
Sagura went all still and looked Badger deep in the eye. Sagura noted Badger’s stiff hair and legs splayed, Badger was ready for a charge.
Badger was an old hand in the forest and knew exactly what the coyote was thinking.
“You are welcome to try ronin” Badger whispered.
Sagura chuckled deep in his chest almost like a budding growl, “Not today Sir Badger you have the advantage.”
Sagura smoothness returned. “Besides” he continued “I am here to converse with the cursed one.”
The Princess’s attention was fully riveted on this ghost coyote, an ugly old feeling rose up in her. Her agile mind and useful memory clicked, she had seen a ghost coyote before outside that terrible dungeon. A slimmer more petite version used to sit outside the door to the dungeon waiting like her father’s guards.
Sagura could tell the Princess had just put some information together, yes she had seen his kind before.
Eyes narrow to slits for the now angry Princess spoke loudly, “cursed one? Be gone foul one or the daughter of the Dragon Lord will show you what she is made of!”
Sagura liked her despite his mission and knowledge.
“Bravery too, Sagura nodded, I’m impressed little Dragon yet I think not today. I come with the message and an offer.”
“What do you wish of me?” The Princess asked.
“Come to the gathering tonight when the moon rises” Sagura instructed.
“Why should I put myself in your hands or those of your people” asked the Princess?
“Like Badger pointed out I am now clan-less” Sagura stiffly answered. “I am clan-less because I could not hunt you. I know who cursed you and the evil that did that wants to swallow all of creation whole but he needs you first.”
“There are a few of us your highness from all creation across the universe; who are working to destroy the evil one.”
“Pretty words,” rumbled the Badger. “Yet where is your proof? Too many of your kind serves only the highest bidder.”
Sagura growled deeply “ENOUGH” he barked. “Aged father true we sell our skills yet we are honorable and loyal.”
Badger persisted “still . . . Proof?”
In the distance a growing growling could be heard as though for many coyotes. Sagura looked back through the forest over his shoulder.
“Proof, you want proof” Asked Sagura?
“There is your proof I am being hunted by my own kind” Sagura stated.
A hush fell over the forest. The squirrels and Badger all cocked their heads to hear; no birds singing, bees buzzing or animal bustling. All that could be heard it is the growling mingled with howling.
They were getting closer.
Sagura took a step closer to the tree this time Badger made no comment. “Well your highness, will you meet tonight?”
“And what of those that chase you” asked Badger?
“I will draw them off. The Fox will come tonight to escort Her Highness.”
“Not alone she won’t” warned Badger.
“By all means father” Sagura conceded almost cynically “you may come as well.”
The red squirrel at the top of the great Elm began to chatter and the Crow to caw.
“Go” instructed Badger hurriedly “they are close, the Princess will be there.”
Looking over his left shoulder Sagura could see several shadowy shapes slip through the trees. They had gone silent now that they could clearly smell and see him.
The great Elm whispered in the Princess’ mind “keep quite Your Highness, not a peep.”
Sagura bounded past the great Elm angling across open pasture to the field where the old bull lived; across the road where the old forest continued.
Badger had remained outside his home; the Princess looked on quietly as the cohort of ghost coyotes glided to a stop at the edge of the forest.
There were five in the pack, all but one was young too young almost. An older, more grizzled silver coyote stepped forward; clearly the leader.
“Our quarrel is not with you father. My name is Tanaka. My squad and I were hunting the traitor, Sagura, which way did he go Old One?”
Badger looked over the five ghost coyotes; this was a young pack for their line of work and Badger had heard of Tanaka.
Tanaka was a cunning trickster whose claim to fame was he never lost a bounty. He was wily this old ghost coyote and to be feared. Even though he had never failed, hubris was not part of his makeup. He was careful, too careful.
Badger weighed all of this “your business is your own Tanaka we will neither help nor hinder.”
Tanaka knew the Old One and while he felt confident they could dispatch the old Badger Tanaka knew Badger was as cunning, wily, and fierce as himself. He could not afford to lose any member of his squad.
The two gazed at each other both old fighters, both old enough to know better, and to know how.
The squad of young coyotes was getting restless clearly undisciplined too young Badger noted; as well as Tanaka. Badger unexpectedly relaxed his aggressive stance and kicked back on his haunches “today is a good day is it not Tanaka” asked Badger?
“Indeed Badger it is” agreed Tanaka.
This position was pointless; Badger was neither the quarry nor would he impart what he knew. As Tanaka chuffed at his squad getting their attention; he dipped his head to Badger, acknowledging an equal.
Clearly Sagura scent led across the open field. Tanaka was too wily to be caught in the old bull’s pasture without leave; especially with a young untrained squad under him. Silently they melted back into the forest.
The old Elm tree whispered to the Princess “hurry now your mother comes and she is angry.”
Sure enough back across the field toward the house came her mother and her grandmother. Both carrying weapons for the Queen had heard the coyotes and could not find her daughter.
In a panic she had set out weapon in hand to find her eldest child.