The Dragon’s Mark – Alex Archer
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The Dragon’s Mark – Alex Archer
Name: The Dragon’s Mark – Alex Archer
Size: 382.51 KB
Title: The Dragon’s Mark
Author: Archer, Alex
Subjects: contemporary, Fiction, General, Action & Adventure, suspense, fantasy, Women Archaeologists, Science Fiction, assassins, adventure, Antiquities, Creed; Annja (Fictitious Character), Swords
Total pages: N/A
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Ise Province, Japan 1603
Sengo Muramasa stormed about the room in a fit of rage. The furnishings around him bore silent witness to the strength of his anger; the black lacquer tea table had been smashed repeatedly against the floor until it shattered into pieces. The tatami mats had been ripped to shreds with his bare hands. The paintings on the walls had been torn down and stomped upon until the images they bore were unrecognizable. When one of his servants unwittingly entered the room, Muramasa had beat him to within an inch of his life and left him lying unconscious in one corner of the room.
The old swordsmith barely noticed the injured boy as his thoughts were on the edict that had arrived earlier that morning and the demands it had contained.
He still couldn’t believe it. That bastard Tokugawa Ieyasu had actually gone through with it!
He’d heard rumors about the shogun’s proposed stance for months, but had never actually believed he would put it into effect.
The words of the edict echoed around and around in his head.
All weapons crafted by the swordsmith Mura-masa have been deemed illegal and banned from use by direct order of the shogun. Carrying such a weapon is now considered a crime and is punishable by death. Anyone caught possessing, hoarding, or transporting a weapon fashioned by Muramasa faces the same penalty.
He could not let this happen.
Deny his art? Banish his work? Never!
Already the germ of a plan was beginning to form in the back of his mind and he gave it free reign to grow and expand. He had no doubt the shogun’s men would be coming for him, to take his inventory and destroy his forge, to prevent him from creating any new blades. But with winter swiftly approaching, the mountain passes would soon be blocked and it would take months for them to thaw enough to be passable again.
Months he could put to good use.
He had just enough time to produce one final sword-the culmination of his career. He would create a sword to be feared and held in awe in equal measure, a blade to master all other blades, one that would strike terror in the hearts of those against whom it was drawn.
He would call it Juuchi Yosamu-Ten Thousand Cold Nights.
Ignoring the destruction behind him, Muramasa stalked out of the house and across the courtyard to his workshop. His heart was full of feelings of anger and vengeance and Muramasa intended to use them fully.
Entering the forge, he paused a moment to say a prayer at the small Shinto shrine in the corner. The forge was a sacred place and to deny the gods their due would only ensure that his blade would come out weak and brittle. He took the time to ask for blessings and to make the proper offering. When he was finished, he rose and got to work.
Muramasa had been preparing to produce a blade for a customer and so his smelting furnace had already been built. His apprentices had created a thick layer of ash and charcoal as a base and then had surrounded it with carefully made bricks of local clay, until they had a structure that was roughly three feet high with walls nearly one-foot thick. They were ready to begin the smelting process.
The master swordsmith shouted at his apprentices and they came running, eager to begin. Word of the master’s fall from favor had already passed through the household and they were as keen as he was to stand in defiance of the shogun’s order. After all, their livelihoods were at stake, as well-for who would commission a weapon from their hands when it was revealed that they learned the art at Muramasa’s knee? Their futures were at stake, too, and they took to their tasks with all of the energy and attention at their disposal.
For the next three days they stoked the fire, ensuring that it burned at a steady temperature of fifteen hundred degrees. Shovels of iron sand were fed into the mouth of the furnace every thirty minutes-nourishment for the hungry beast-the iron mixing with the carbon and charcoal already in the smelter to create a unique kind of steel. Muramasa watched over the proceedings with an eagle eye, carefully monitoring the molten slag that was vented through the holes at the bottom of the furnace, waiting for just the right consistency and color to appear.
When at last he was satisfied, he ordered his apprentices to tear down the walls of the furnace, revealing a large mass of molten steel in the center, known as the kera. Roughly six feet long by one foot wide and weighing nearly two tons, the kera was carefully moved by rolling it atop a series of logs to the other side of the workshop where it would be allowed to cool. Once it had, his apprentices would break up the massive block into fist-size fragments that he would personally scrutinize, searching for those that shone with a silvery brightness from the outer edge. The selected pieces would then be hammered flat by his workers, coated with a thin mixture of clay and charcoal to prevent oxidation, and then reheated to thirteen hundred degrees to melt them all together into a single block. After that he would begin the process of forming the blade, hammering the steel and folding it over, again and again and again, making the steel uniform throughout. Eventually he would combine the softer, more flexible core with an outer edge of harder steel, then heat the blade all over again to meld the two layers into one. Later would come the grinding and polishing.
For now, however, it was enough that he had begun.
It was finished.
Muramasa stared at the highly polished blade and could almost feel it watching him, in turn. For three months he had poured his soul into its creation, imbuing it with all the hatred, anger and desire for vengeance he felt toward the shogun, giving it a personality of its own, one that would devour any weapon that dared to stand against it. Like the dragon for which it had been named.
It was the culmination of his life’s work.
The door to his workshop burst open and a servant rushed in. Muramasa recognized him as one of those who had been tasked with keeping an eye on the pass in the mountains above. The boy’s face was ruddy from the cold and a long gash ran across his brow.
Pausing to catch his breath, the boy finally gasped out the message he’d rushed there to deliver.
"The shogun’s troops."
That was all that was necessary.
The spring thaw had come early and Muramasa had been expecting word of their arrival for days. It wouldn’t take them long to negotiate the pass and descend down to the valley floor. He had one hour, two at the most.
But it would be enough.
Juuchi Yosamu was finished. All he needed was to see to its delivery.
After that, let them come.
The old swordsmith sprang into action.
"Quickly," he shouted to the boy. "Find me Yukasawi!"
Still struggling to catch his breath, the boy turned and rushed out the door, intent on doing what his master commanded.
While he waited for his man, Muramasa crossed the room and selected a worn and battered saya from a barrel in the corner of the room. He lifted the blade, intent on securing it safely inside the scabbard.
As he did so the weapon seemed to twist in his hands of its own accord and he felt the sting of its bite as the razor edge sliced cleanly along the underside of his forearm. Blood dripped onto the floor and gleamed wetly against the edge of the blade. But rather than being angry at his carelessness, if that was indeed what caused the injury, Muramasa simply smiled.
The sword hungered for blood, just as it had been created to. Who better than to provide its first taste than the man who had fashioned it?
A noise at his back caused him to turn and he saw Yukasawi enter the workshop. Muramasa took a moment to study him.
The man was a ronin, one of those samurai from the lesser houses who had recently lost his station when his master had gone down in defeat at the hands of the shogun. This is a man who has almost as much reason to hate Tokugawa as I do, the swordsmith thought. It was for this reason that he had been selected. If anyone could get the weapon to safety, Yukasawi could.
It would be the soldier’s job to take the sword out of the mountains, past the shogun’s troops and into the hands of the samurai in Kyoto Muramasa had selected to receive it.
The man in question, Ishikawa Toshi, was ruthless and wanted nothing more than to ascend to the position of shogun. He was already amassing his army against Tokugawa and his allies, and Muramasa was confident that his gift would be put to good use in the future. All the swordsmith had to do was get it to him.
"Is it time?" Yukasawi asked, his face tight with concern for his benefactor.
Muramasa nodded. "The shogun’s troops have been sighted at the top of the pass. They will be here shortly."
"Then there is still time. If we leave now, we can-"
"No." The swordsmith cut him off. "There is no time left for running. Nor will I give that dog Tokugawa the satisfaction. By remaining behind I will delay them long enough to allow you to escape and deliver Juuchi Yosamu as we discussed."
He thrust the now-sheathed weapon into the hands of his vassal. "On your honor and your life, do not fail me."
"Hai!" the ronin shouted. Taking the weapon in hand, he bowed low, then rushed out of the workshop to where his horse was waiting.
The trip down the mountain would be hazardous, but Muramasa was confident his man could handle the task. His other creations might be rounded up and destroyed, but in the depths of his heart he knew that this one would survive.
As his blood continued to drip onto the floor beneath his feet, the swordsmith knew that the world would not soon forget the savage bite of a Muramasa blade.
His legacy would live on.
And Juuchi Yosamu would devour the hearts of his enemies.
A shout sounded from outside and Muramasa knew that that the shogun’s troops were near. It was time to meet death.
The old man reached out and picked up a sword. He gave it a few experimental swings, getting the feel for this particular blade, and then turned tow…
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