The bitter cold bit into his flesh and the snowflakes from the overcast bluish-grey sky swirled briefly around him before settling upon his head and shoulders. The merciless wind ran its icy tendrils down his back and held his body in an unyielding embrace as he shivered uncontrollably. As he stumbled along to the grounds where his life would end, he shook himself slightly to remove the snow upon him and received a hard kick from behind.
He crashed to the ground, with his chains rattling noisily as he fell. A gruff voice cried out,"Get up!".
He was jerked to his feet again and forced to continue the journey that
would lead to his inevitable death. However, despite the unrelenting torment
of the weather and his executioners, he felt no anger towards them, none
whatsoever. All that he felt, was an all-consuming, heart-wrenching pain.
The pain of betrayal. Betrayal by the very government he trusted. Betrayal
How could I be so foolish? My men... all of them... dead... because of me.
As he finally arrived at the marketplace where he was to be executed, he looked up. His was to be a public execution, to show how just and fair the Ishin-Shishi was. All around him, people were whispering and pointing at him. He smiled bitterly. In their eyes, he was a criminal, a felon, who for some twisted purpose known only to himself, had gathered a group of men to himself and sent them out to spread rumors of taxes decreasing.
Rough hands pushed him down to his knees just as his 'crimes' were read out.
"Sagara Souzou, leader of the Seikihoutai sought to cheat...."
As the droning voice went on monotonously, he scanned the crowd, wondering if the two young boys he befriended and let into the Seikihoutai were here. He longed to see them once more but yet, he wished for their sake that they were not. If they were apprehended by the corrupt officials...he dared not think of what fate might befall them.
His heart skipped a beat as he saw the tell-tale brown hair that stuck
out so distinctively, the hairstyle of Sanosuke, just as memories washed
over him like a tidal wave, taking him back through time, to the day when
he first met Sanosuke... It was snowing too on that day, just like it was
The clashing of swords. The screams of dying men. Countless bodies falling to the ground. Amber liquid spilling out from the bodies of dead men.
Despite the chill winds, Sagara Souzou was sweating profusely. All around him, men, his own and the enemy's were falling. It was true that the enemy was weakening, but the Seikihoutai had suffered heavy losses. He had already lost many good men and knew that he would lose more before the battle was over.
He lashed out at his opponent with his katana, which was already gleaming with the blood of the countless number of men he had killed and cut him down swiftly. He was no expert swordsman, like the legendary Hitokiri Battousai, but he was pretty good.
Pausing for a breather and holding his katana before him, he went up back to back with his best friend and chief advisor in the Seikihoutai, Touya.
"How are you doing?" he gasped.
"Fine, I'm okay. Worry about yourself instead. We'll win this battle for sure, Souzou. Don't fret." With that, Touya threw himself wholeheartedly into the battle again. Souzou followed.
Within seconds, a blood-curdling scream sounded. Touya! No! Souzou spun round, just in time to see Touya fall to the ground.
"TOUYA!" With a scream of rage, Souzou charged over to Touya's assailant. Anger lent him speed. Souzou thrust his sword into the torso of the assailant before the man was even aware of his presence. Touya's assailant died, with a frozen expression of shock and horror on his face and a silent scream upon his lips.
Souzou dashed over to Touya and knelt down beside him. He was not yet dead, but with every second that ticked by, he was fading fast.
"Oh Touya..." Souzou's voice died off as his soft brown eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
"B-Be...Behind...y-you..." Touya whispered. His voice faltered, he breathed his last.
Souzou turned, tears streaking down his handsome face, his sword ready for battle. It was too slow.
Pain sliced through his arm as he moved to avoid the blow. He fell painfully down as the sword slipped from his numb fingers and clattered to the ground behind some bushes. He felt the warm trickle of blood course down his arm. The pain was unbearable. Clutching his arm, he looked up to see the wicked-looking sword lance its way towards his heart. He braced himself for the worse.
A cry sounded behind him. Startled, his would-be assassin stopped the journey of the sword, just inches away from his heart.
A young boy had jumped out of the bushes holding Souzou's katana. The youngster charged forward and stabbed the sword into the leg of his would-be assassin.
The colors of the world blended to form a swirling black abyss before Souzou's eyes.
No, not now. I can't pass out now. My men, they need me...
The abyss melted away to reveal a swirl of brillant colours. A soft moan escaped his lips,"Uhh....."
"Uehara? What happened?"
"Taichou, we won the battle."
Souzou jolted up when the memories came flooding through.
"The battle! Argh...my arm..." His voice trailed off as an intense pain ravaged his arm. He looked down, to see that his injured arm had been carefully bandaged up by one of the members in Seikihoutai, probably Touya.
No...Touya is dead.
That thought brought Souzou back to reality fully and he squeezed his eyes shut as the image of Touya, with his face contorted in pain, flashed through his mind.
Oh Touya...your child...
Uehara looked on in concern.
Souzou eyes flew open.
"Body count!" He barked. That was the only way he could hide his pain...behind a facade of stern leadership.
"Yukan, Yukito, Touya, Ouji, Goro and Yuki are among the deceased. Ryo is gravely injured."
Souzou closed his eyes and leaned back against the rock that he had been propped against.
Minutes ticked by with neither men making a sound. Uehara knew his Taichou well enough to realise that he wanted to be left in peace. The sobs of a young child reached their ears.
"The boy! He saved my life! Where is he?" Souzou queried.
"Oh, him? We think he's Touya's child. He refuses to speak to anyone at all. He just keeps kneeling down beside Touya's body and crying."
"Take me to him!" Souzou ordered.
Souzou bent down on his knee beside the young boy. He had ordered his men to leave them alone.
The young boy stopped sobbing for a moment and looked up. His pale, tear-streaked face was almost a mirror reflection of Touya's. As were the enormous brown eyes and trademark spiky hair.
"Is he your father?" Souzou's voice was soft and soothing.
The young boy scrubbed at his eyes with his grimy hands and then nodded.
"Where's your mother?" Souzou's voice still had the soft soothing quality about it.
In a low choked voice, the child answered, "She died giving birth to me. I-I followed Daddy to make sure he would be okay. He said that everything was going to be fine and that he would come home for dinner, b-but but now..."
Souzou did remember attending the funeral of Touya's wife.
The child burst into tears again.
Souzou brushed his tears away and stroked the young boy's face tenderly. "What's your name?"
"S-Sanosuke," he stammered.
"Thank you for saving my life."
Sanosuke stared at him, a haunted look in his eyes.
"You tried to save my d-daddy..." Sanosuke broke off and threw himself into Souzou's arms, sobbing piteously.
Souzou was stunned for a minute, but he quickly recovered. Embracing
Sanosuke tightly, he murmured softly in his ear, stroking his hair,"We'll
take care of you. You're part of the Seikihoutai now."
No, it wasn't Sanosuke. He could see that now. He smiled sadly. In a way, he was glad that Sanosuke wasn't here to see his execution, but how he longed to see Sanosuke one last time before he died. He would never admit it to anyone, but he favoured Sanosuke above Katsu. That mischievous smile...
Souzou stiffened as his execution was called for. He looked up at the vicious axe in the hands of his executioner. It glinted dully in the night sky. He closed his eyes and looked down. His death was at hand, and this time, there was no escaping it.
The axe came crashing down.