O NCE upon a time there was a great lord who lived in the Island of the Nine Provinces. He had but one son, a bright little fellow whom the people in admiration nicknamed "Young Thunder." During one of the civil wars, the lord's castle was taken, and he was slain; but by the aid of a servant the boy escaped and fled northward to a neighboring province, where he lived until he grew up to manhood.
For many years the province had been infested with robbers who grew bolder and bolder. One day the faithful servant of Young Thunder was attacked, whereupon he made resistance and was slain by the robbers. The young man now left alone in the world led a wandering life in various parts of the Sunrise Kingdom.
All this time he was consumed with the desire to revive the name of his father, and restore the fortunes of his family. He was exceedingly brave, and an expert swordsman, but his early misfortunes had made him an enemy of the law. So he became chief of a band of robbers, plundered many wealthy merchants, and in a short time was rich in men, arms, and booty. He was accustomed to disguise himself as a beggar, or priest, or traveling tinker, and go in person into the houses of men of wealth, and thus learn all about their gates and guards, where they slept, and in what rooms their treasures were stored, so that success was easy.
Hearing of an old man who lived in the highlands, he started to rob him, and for this purpose put on the disguise of a pilgrim. But before he reached there a great snow-storm forced him to take refuge in a humble house by the way. Entering, he found a beautiful woman, who treated him with great kindness. This, however, did not change the robber's wicked nature. At midnight, when all was still, he unsheathed his sword, and going noiselessly to her room, he found the lady absorbed in reading.
Lifting his sword, he was about to strike at her neck, when, in a flash, her body changed into that of a very old man, who seized the heavy steel blade and broke it in pieces as though it were a stick. Then he tossed the bits of steel away, and thus spoke to the robber who stood amazed but fearless:
"I am a man of magic power, and I have lived in these mountains many hundred years, though my true body is that of a huge frog. I can easily put you to death, but I have another purpose. So I shall pardon you and teach you magic instead. But first you must promise to cease following your evil life."
Then the youth bowed his head to the floor, acknowledged his crimes to the old man, and begged to be received as his pupil. Thus it came about that he dwelt with the magician for several weeks, and learned all the arts of the mountain spirits; how to cause a storm of wind and rain, and to make a deluge, and to control the elements at will.
He also learned how to govern the frogs, and at his bidding they assumed gigantic size, so that on their backs he could stand up and cross rivers and carry enormous loads.
When the old man had finished instructing him he said, "Henceforth cease from robbing, or in any way injuring the poor. Take from the wicked rich, and those who acquire money dishonestly, but help the needy and the suffering." Thus speaking, the old man turned into a huge frog and hopped away.
What this old mountain spirit bade him do, was just what Young Thunder wished. For you must know, this was in early days before there was much law or order, and people had to protect themselves as best they could. So the young man set out on his journey with a light heart.
"I can now make the storm and the waters obey me, and all the frogs are at my command," he said; "but alas! the magic of the frog cannot control that of the serpent. I shall have to beware of his poison."
From that time forth the oppressed poor people rejoiced whenever avaricious merchants and extortionate money-lenders lost their treasures. For when a poor farmer, whose crops failed, could not pay his rent or loan, on the date promised, these hard-hearted money-lenders would turn him out of his house, seize his beds, mats, and rice-tub, and even the shrine and images on the god-shelf, to sell them at auction for a trifle, to their minions, who resold them at a high price for the money-lender, who thus got a double benefit. But whenever a miser was robbed, the people said, "The Young Thunder has struck," and then they were glad. In this manner his name soon became the poor people's watchword in those troublous times.
Yet he was always ready to help the innocent and honest, even if they were rich. One day a merchant was sentenced to death, though he was really not guilty. Young Thunder, hearing of it, went to the magistrate and said that he himself was the very man who had committed the robbery. So the man's life was saved, and Young Thunder was hanged on a large oak tree. But during the night, his body changed into a bullfrog which hopped away out of sight, and off into the mountains.
At this time, a young and beautiful maiden lived in the mountain district. Her character was very lovely. She was always obedient to her parents and kind to her friends. Her daily task was to go to the mountains and cut brushwood for fuel. One day while thus busy, singing at the task, she met a very old man, with a long white beard sweeping his breast, who said to her:
"Do not fear me. I have lived in this mountain many hundred years, but my real body is that of a snail. I will teach you the powers of magic, so that you can walk on the sea, or cross a river however swift and deep, as though it were dry land."
Gladly the maiden took daily lessons of the old man, and soon was able to walk on the waters as if they were the mountain paths. One day the old man said, "I shall now leave you and resume my former shape. Use your power to destroy the wicked robbers. Help those who defend the poor. I advise you to marry the famous warrior, Young Thunder, and unite your powers with his."
Thus saying, the old man shriveled up into a snail and crawled away.
"I am glad," said the maiden to herself, "for the magic of the snail can overcome that of the serpent. If Young Thunder, who has the magic of the frog, should marry me, we could then destroy the son of the serpent, the terrible robber, Dragon-coil."
By good fortune, Young Thunder soon met the maiden, and being charmed with her beauty, and knowing her power of magic, he sent a messenger with presents to her parents, asking them to give him their daughter to wife. The parents agreed, and so the young and loving couple were married.
Hitherto when Young Thunder had wished to cross a river, he had changed himself into a frog and swam across; or he had summoned a bullfrog before him, which increased in size until it was as large as an elephant. Then standing erect on its back, he had reached the opposite shore in safety. Now with his wife's powers the two walked over the waters as though the surface were a hard floor.
Soon after their marriage, war broke out in Japan between two famous clans. To help them fight their battles, and capture the castles of their enemies, one family besought the aid of Young Thunder, who agreed to serve them and carried their banner. Their enemies then secured the services of Dragon-coil.
This Dragon-coil was a dangerous and wicked robber whose father was a man, and whose mother was a serpent that lived at the bottom of a lake. He was perfectly skilled in the magic of the serpent, and by spurting venom on his enemies could destroy the strongest warriors. Collecting thousands of followers, he made great ravages in all parts of Japan, robbing and murdering good and bad, rich and poor alike. Loving war and destruction, he was glad to join forces with one of the warring clans.
Now that the magic of the frog and snail was joined to one army, and the magic of the serpent aided the other, the conflicts were bloody and terrible, and many men were slain on both sides.
On one occasion, after a hard-fought battle, Young Thunder fled and took refuge in a monastery, with a few trusty vassals, to rest a short time. In this retreat a lovely princess was dwelling. She had fled from Dragon-coil, who wished her for his bride. She did not want to marry the son of a serpent, and hoped to escape him. She lived in fear of him continually. Dragon-coil, hearing at one time that both Young Thunder and the princess were at this place, changed himself into a serpent, and distilling a large mouthful of poison, crawled up to the ceiling in the room where Young Thunder lay sleeping, and reaching a spot directly over him poured the venom on his head. The fumes of the poison stupefied him and all his followers. Dragon-coil then changed into a man and seized the princess and made off with her.
Gradually the faithful retainers awoke from their stupor to find their master delirious and near the point of death, and the princess gone.
"What can we do to restore our dear master to life?" This was the question each one asked of the others, as with sorrowful faces and weeping eyes they gazed at his pallid form. They called in the venerable abbot of the monastery to see if he could suggest what might be done.
"Alas!" said the aged priest, "there is no medicine in Japan to cure your lord's disease; but in India there is an elixir which is a sure antidote. If we could get that, the master would recover."
"Alas! alas!" and a chorus of groans showed that all hope had fled, for the mountain in India, where the elixir was made, lay five thousand miles from Japan.
Just then a youth, one of the pages of Young Thunder, arose to speak. He was but fourteen years old, and was a servant out of gratitude, for Young Thunder had rescued his father from many dangers and saved his life. He begged permission to say a word to the abbot, who, seeing the lad's eager face, motioned to him with his fan to speak.
"How long can our lord live?" asked the youth.
"He will be dead in thirty hours," answered the abbot, with a sigh.
"If you will give me leave to go, I will procure the medicine, and if our master is still living when I come back, he will get well."
Now this young page had learned magic and sorcery from the Tengus, or long-nosed elves of the mountains, and could fly high in the air with incredible swiftness. Speaking a few words of incantation, he put on the wings of a Tengu, mounted a white cloud and rode on the east wind to India. He bought the elixir of the mountain spirits, and returned to Japan in one day and a night.
Although Young Thunder was about to expire, at the first touch of the elixir to his face he drew a deep breath, perspiration glistened on his forehead, and in a few moments more he sat up.
Soon he was well, and being now immune to the serpent's poison, he fought a great battle against Dragon-coil and at last killed him. The princess was rescued and restored to her parents. For his brave deeds, Young Thunder was pardoned for all his misdeeds and his father's estate was restored to him. There with his lovely wife he spent his remaining days in quiet and peace. They abjured magic, and instead reared a family of noble sons and daughters. Their name was known with love and honor in all Japan.