Morning arrives quickly in the Negev desert. Spears of light shoot across the hard, barren ground, casting long shadows and making the mountains to the east glow. A caravan of Bedoin traders, having risen well before dawn, trudges along a path worn deep into the sandy ground. On one of the heavily-laden camels, a reed cage moves with the struggles of the boy trapped inside. Jesus Christ, up early on the moring of his thirteenth birthday to feed his new goat, had been swept up by a party of Hittite raiders retreating from a battle on the heights north of Galilee. The Hittites had bound and gagged him, transported him and their other unlucky victims to the customary place in the scrub hills outside of Jerusalem where slaves are sold and bought.
Jesus is sweltering inside his cage, and the jarring movements of the camel have chafed him and left him with many bruises. He does not speak the Bedoin language, but strains nontheless to listen to the men walking beside his camel.
[Five more days until we reach the salt sea,] an elderly Bedoin man says.
[I hope my wife does not die tonight, while giving birth,] his companion replies.
The air smells of salt; it is alive with the screeching of gulls. Jesus awakes in a high-walled courtyard, bound neck to ankles and attached to four other slaves by a long thick rope slung between them. The small area is packed with other groups similarly shackled. The sun is barely slanting down the high walls, and when Jesus makes to stand, he finds that the slave behind him, another young boy, has died during the night. A door of rough wooden planks flies open, and three armed men with long black beards come rushing into the area. They begin to shout and to point at the dead boy, kicking at him roughly and prodding him with their staves before doing the same to the rest of the slaves. The beatings last a few minutes. Soon, the bearded men stop beating the slaves out of punishment and begin to beat them as a means to motivate them and to get them on their feet.
The slaves are led out of their courtyard and into another, larger one, where men of all types and costumes wait, some already calling out and waving pouches of money in the air, excited at the quality of the wares. Jesus is quickly bought, his dark complextion, mess of coarse brown hair, and lively black eyes likely matching a description given by some far-off prince.
For weeks, they sail to the east, high thin masts straining in the morning winds, brightly-colored sails glowing in the light of the rising sun. The sailors are mostly quiet, going about their business with efficiency, stopping occasionally to re-wind their long turbans or simply to stroke at their full beards. Jesus is allowed to move freely about the ship; he is fed well, and begins to learn the language of the small, dark-skinned me who so resemble him, and who treat him kindly.
[Land ho,] a lookout yells.
[That does not look like the southern island,] the first mate says, stepping around their small captive, who has made a nest of sorts in a pile of hempen rope.
[It is not the southern island, for we have been blown off course by last night's strong gale,] the captain says. [These are likely the lands to the east of our lands, where many elephants sound their trumpets.]
The captain gives instructions to the pilot and the calls go out. The ship begins to come about, tacking expertly into the easterly winds.
[Marauders!] someone yells.
Out of a break in the coastal mangrove trees come sailing three small ships, single-masted vessels that seem to dart through the water. As they are approaching rapidly, men begin to line their gunwhales, the sunlight glinting off of the weapons in their hands. The captain of the trading vessel gives the order to strike the sails, and the ship slows considerably. Within moments the marauders pull alongside, casting weighted ropes and pulling their small boats in close. With a sickening scream they are aboard, their weapons flashing. Spurts of blood rise into the sky as the crewmembers are slaughtered, their cries mingling with the piercing screams of the marauding band. The attack is over quickly. After dumping the bodies of the dead into the seas, the pirates begin to rifle through the holds, transferring certain items to their smaller vessels and making ready to sail off with the larger ship. As he is coiling a length of rope in preparation for departure, one of the marauders, a whip-thin, scarred young man with rotting teeth, discovers Jesus, tangled and shivering with fright, among the thick piles of rope.
Removing a dagger from his belt, he yells to the other men. They gather around the boy, laughing and spitting at him. A conversation ensues among the older pirates. They yell at the young man with the rotting teeth as he is threatening Jesus with his knife, and, after much more yelling, move the boy to one of the smaller boats, bind and gag him, and make him to sit on cargo taken from the trading vessel.
He sways with the gait of the great beast, sore from the jostling, and from days of crouching in the close confines of his bamboo cage. Having already sold most of the stolen cargo to a buyer near their base, the marauders are now moving Jesus and the remaining goods through a vast market area, and the smells of fruits and cooking meats bite into his stomach with the force of a slaver's blow. His cage is pulled roughly from the side of a large animal that seems to him to have a long tail for a nose, and he is left there in the dust to wonder at the heaps of fragrant and colorful spices that line the tables all around. Again he is brought into an area ringed with shouting and gesturing men, and again he is quickly sold. He watches his new masters closely, marveling at the two swords they wear, one long and curved, the other shorter, and at the layers of fine cloth they wear as clothing. He is led to their ship, a tri-masted vessel with square sails sitting low in the water.
The language they speak is like nothing he has ever heard before, but he listens intently from where is bound among hard wooden boxes by one ankle to a metal ring affixed stoutly to the deck. The cook, who works nearby, is a round man with eyes that look like horizontal slits. He smiles at Jesus and pats him on the head, speaking to him in the language of the crew and giving him a strange piece fruit to eat. When the boy bites into the skin of the fruit, the cook cries out, pulling the pieces out of his mouth and speaking to him slowly while pointing at the lighter, inner flesh of the fruit, which is offered up for consumption. Jesus wolfs down the strangely sweet morsels, and promptly vomits them back up again.
The cook crouches to feel the boy's stomach, shaking his head. He picks up the pieces of fruit, wipes away the wetness, and within a short time has set a bowl of steaming whiteness in front of the boy. When Jesus starts shoving handfulls of it into his mouth, the cook clucks at him and takes the bowl away, waiting for the boy to finish chewing before allowing him another handful. The cook points at the whiteness, says a word, points at the whiteness, saying the same word again.
[Raisu,] Jesus says, forcing his tongue to pronounce the foreign syllables. The cook smiles broadly and turns back to his pots.
A few days into the voyage, having regained much of his strength, the cook allows Jesus to help with small tasks around the galley and teaches him some of the less-complicated knotwork. Once they are away from sight of land, the boy is unbound and, after displaying, to the surprise of the captain, an ability with ropes and a cunning amid the rigging, is put to work for the remainder of their time at sea.
The ship docks at night, a small fishing village. Bound and hooded, Jesus is led up a well-worn path to a castle on top of a hill, where he is placed in a small room and given something hot and bitter to drink. A guard wearing armor made up of what look like joined segments stands guard outside of his room, and Jesus peers at him from time to time through a crack in the outward-opening peephole. A full moon rises, and the boy can see servants extinguishing the torches and braziers that ring the inner courtyard. The guard neither moves nor seems to be breathing, but when Jesus accidentally knocks against the door, he is there in a flash, opening the peephole and peering menacingly into the room, his breath coming in short quick bursts.
A cock crows, and Jesus wakes from a dream-less sleep. Sunlight is streaming through the high barred window, playing against the smooth stone walls of his cell. A servant brings him a bowl of rice. Just as he is finishing with his meal, he hears voices approaching. The door soon opens to reveal an elderly man standing with a teenage boy roughly his own age. The guard moves into the room, motioning with his pole-axe for Jesus to go outside. He approaches the boy slowly, smiling shyly and looking down at the length of cloth an elderly woman servant had wrapped around him the night before to replace his foul and stinking rags. The boy looks up at the elderly man, says something to him. The man bows to the boy before striding up to Jesus and placing a hand on his shoulder. He runs his hand down Jesus' arm, feels the muscles, prods him a bit around the mid-section, checks his teeth, then turns to the boy and seems to give a report. Bowing again, the man retreats to the boy's side. The boy steps forward, points to himself, and says a word repeatedly.
[Taki?] Jesus says.
[Hai. Taki,] the boy responds, nodding sagely.
[Iesu,] Jesus says, pointing to himself.
The boy nods curtly and runs off to a side of the courtyard, where there lie bows and quivers of arrows. He sits to string a bow, then looks up at Jesus, who walks quickly to join him. Taki begins to talk excitedly about the bow, picking up a quiver and pointing out features on the equisitely-fashioned arrows. As Taki is talking, Jesus notices movement in the higher reaches of the castle, and he turns to see a well-dressed man speaking with the elderly man who had checked his teeth. The well-dressed man nods sagely, at which point the elderly tooth inspector bows and backs away. Taki whacks Jesus on the belly, drawing his attention back to the intricacies of archery.
Eight years pass. Taki's father, Lord Mashiyota, is, unlike many of his counterparts, a sovereign who cares for his people, who considers the wellbeing of the less-than-fortunate to be more important than the hoarding of riches. He instills in his son a strong sense of honor, the notions of self-lessness, humility, and mercy, notions that strengthen the bonds among the common folk. Iesu, Taki's constant companion, learns with his friend the lessons of frugality and of not daring to take the world and doing whatever he wants with it. The Mashiyota province experiences unusual growth and prosperity, a prosperity felt by all who there dwell; there is a blossoming of justice and humanity that reaches even to the overseas trading partners and to the neighbors with whom relations have not always been friendly. But it is not enough to be humble and merciful, for one must be prepared at all times to face the challenges of the world, those things that one cannot avoid and that must be dealt with at their root before they grow into giant swaying problems. Therefore, Taki and Iesu train together in the martial arts alonside their studies in calligraphy, classical lore, stagecraft, and the art of storytelling.
When Taki is in his twentieth year, a warlord jealous of the great prosperity of the Mashiyota province sends forces in long hard ranks into its seaside districts. Once subdued, the foul Lord Niishoya turns his troops on the stone fortresses of the Mashiyota clan. One by one, they fall, the garrisons and armed peasants no match against the sheer number of lethal samurai employed by Niishoya. When circumstances seem most dire, disaster strikes hardest. Lord Mashiyota, while leading a stalling maneuver to allow for the evacuation of a hillside hamlet, is ambushed by mercenary samurai, and killed. (The battle, known in the West as Falling Hawks, is still now remembered as one of the most tactically genious and daring strikes against a numerically superior force in the history of warfare in Japan.)
Taki remains calm upon receiving the news of his father's death.
[Iesu,] he says finally, while sitting next to his friend in the neatly-kept garden that lies hard against the castle walls. [It is not out of pride that I wish to see my father's killers killed. It is out of love for the poor people, they who, unless we stop the man who is threatening our very way of life, will surely suffer needlessly, they whose lives will surely become hard and barren under Lord Niishoya's evil ways.]
[You speak well, Taki, and your words bear much truth. Surely, it is better to contain this problem and to address it in its infancy before having to deal with it fully-grown. I will do anything you ask of me, dear friend.]
[We will receive the attack tonight, here, you and I, we and whatever fighting men remain. Then, tomorrow or the next day, we will pay a visit to Lord Niishoya himself.]
The mercenary samurai attack shortly after midnight. Anticipating just this type of action, Taki and Jesus have kept close to the walls. They are on the ramparts in a flash, sneaking glances at their assailants to avoid the sharp sting of missiles, rising up briefly to fire their own weapons, and shouting commands down to the skilled archers who from the courtyard are raining death onto the approaching enemy. Taki points to a far corner of the courtyard, yelling at a groom who is allowing the horses to be spooked. An arrow strikes his left arm near the wrist. He sinks to his knees, his eyes fixed on a distant point, pain draining the blood from his face.
[Be calm, Taki,] Jesus says, kneeling beside him. [You must be strong – your people need you. I will remove the arrow and do what I can for the wound.] Jesus inspects the arrow, finds a weak point, and snaps the stick in twain. He removes the shaft from his friend's arm with a slow steady pull, inspecting the arrowhead before flinging the broken projectile out over the castle walls.
[The arrowhead was not poisoned. I will treat the wound with the common leaf and bind it in the old way.] As he is working, Taki sits up, opening his eyes and blinking confusedly, his face suddenly flush.
[Iesusan,] Taki says, rolling his hand around on the wrist with nary a wince or whimper. [Either the common leaf is strong this year, or you have a talent for healing. I am forever in your debt.]
Suddenly, loud banging can be heard from the castle gates, and the archers and other warriors present hurry up onto the ramparts, the better to whittle down the numbers of their adversaries.
Siege engines arrive, some drawn by horses, others by men. They slow under the expertly placed arrows, but their numbers are simply too great, and they eventually come within striking distance. Soon, the main gate splinters, and, with their sharply piercing scream, the mercenary samurai come streaming into the last stronghold of the Mashiyota clan.
Jesus and Taki flit about the shadows, their dark clothing making them difficult to see, their weapons flashing dully in the feeble starlight as they slaughter the attacking horde. All too quickly they are fighting back-to-back, retreating before the pounding waves of the enemy in good order with their few remaining allies to the deeper reaches of the castle. They maneuver into a choke-point, and Taki and Jesus take turns cutting down the evil samurai from the top of a narrow stone staircase, their pole-axes wet and glistening with blood and gore. In time, the samurai, who are not fools, retreat, and just as they are returning with shields raised and long hooks in hand, a cry goes out, not the curlting scream but another, higher-pitched and filled with pride, a cry that seems to shake the very stones set solidly in the walls. The samurai turn and rush away as one.
Cautiously, Taki and Jesus emerge from their redoubt, stepping gingerly over the bodies of the dead, here and there striking the last merciful blow. As they are slowly advancing, the sounds of a great battle erupt from the main gates, sounds that fade quickly into silence.
Rounding the last corner, the honor-brothers are shocked to see a multitude of simple peasants, most armed with the weapons of fallen samurai, many cut and bleeding, filling the broad main courtyard. As one the peasants fall to their knees, bowing low before the new Lord Mashiyota.
[Rise, my friends,] Taki calls out clearly. [It is I who should be bowing before you, you who have saved my life and the lives of my comrades, you who have done more to avenge the death of my father than I could ever have hoped to do.]
An old peasant woman steps from the ranks, bowing low before her new sovereign. [My lord,] the toothless woman says, [the news is everywhere. Lord Niishoya was found this morning, dead in his campaign tent. By all appearances, he was slain by one of his concubine-slaves. Fortune surely smiles upon us, my lord.]
[And so it is that the wicked will be struck down by those who drink most deeply of their evil, and the weak will rise up to claim their right mantle as the true sovereigns of the world,] Jesus says.
The peasants nod to each other, casting their glances upon the foreigner of whom they have heard so much.
With a final bow to their new lord and his wise companion, the peasants move out of the castle, casting down their weapons within the gates and dragging the many lifeless bodies with them out into the night. The faint sounds of digging begin to fill the dark still air.
[I must leave, Takisan, to return back to my home,] Jesus says, early the next morning as they are surveying the long straight rows of graves that line the road beyond the castle walls. [I cannot say why I must go; it is simply something I know I must do.]
[You have been a good and loyal friend to me, all these year, Iesusan. If you were to stay, you and my sister would certainly be wed, and you would not have to conduct your courtship in such secrecy. I must now take to the long hard task of rebuilding my lands, to the rekindling of the notions of honor and sacrifice by which my father lived and died. If we had not lost so much in the final attack, I would gladly shower upon you the riches derserving of a brother. Take this, my sword. May it see you safely home.]
[I am forever in your debt, Takisan, for your kindness and for your friendship. Give my best to your sister, she whom I so dearly love. My friend from long ago, a cook on the trading vessel that brought me to be here with you, has already promised to take me over to the big land. The sea is dangerous and upredictable, so, from those wide distant shores, I will let the stars guide me, and I will walk.]
[How long will it take you to walk back to your home, honor-brother?]
Iesusan pauses. [Twelve, or perhaps thirteen, years,] he says finally.