Authors: Barry Sadler
From the hillside overlooking the Isthmus of Shigimitsu, it was a magnificent spectacle. The samurai were nothing if not incredibly colorful. There were colorful banners and flags, tunics and loose
trousers of a hundred shades of plum and scarlet, and emerald and gold rippled through the ranks of both sides.
At sea the awkward junk style vessels wallowed slowly toward each other. The Taira ships inside the narrows of the straits were trying to act as a blocking force but something was going wrong. They were having a hard time maneuvering and the winds were not with them. Perhaps the tides and the winds w
ere against them. The Minamoto were outside moving in, trying to catch the wind and close with the Taira.
They had gone almost full circle, returning to where they had first made their crossing from Kyushu to Honshu. Here in these narrow straits the final chapter was to be written in oceans of blood. Casca was not and had never been a good
sailor, though the gods knew he had spent enough time on ships of one kind or another.
From what he could see, his first impressions seemed to be correct. The currents and tides were obviously forcing the Taira ships in close to the shore where they were in danger of breaking up on submerged rocks and reefs or being beached in an area held by the Minamoto forces. Shading his eyes, Casca thought he could make out the ship that bore the boy Emperor Antoku Te
nno. The Taira obviously felt he was safer on one of the ships than on land. The ship was in the rear of the fleet surrounded by three other larger war vessels filled with samurai, most of whom would have rather been on the land than on the sea, for the Japanese were not great sailors and few, if any, knew the art of swimming. Any who went into the water would die save those few who the gods would smile upon, or had taken the time to learn to swim.
From where Casca stood, the smell of death was strong. Below he could see thousands of crumpled butterflies lying on carpets of red, the dead of Dan
-No-Ura. Both sides had taken heavy losses. Casca had great respect for the courage of the samurai but little for the tactics they employed. Direct confrontation was the method normally favored by both sides. As a rule their generals knew little of the fine art of maneuvering and terrain. But their personal courage was incredible.
His own robes were stiff and sticky with blood. He had fought well this day but Muramasa had been a man possessed. He and that damned cursed sword of his. The number of heads he had taken this day was incredible and it seemed as if nothing could touch him.
had killed and blocked all killing blows made at him. Now they were, entering the final stage of the battle.
The Taira forces were doomed and Casca knew that very few would live to see Ameratsu on the morrow. Whoever lost died. That was the rule and it se
emed as if the samurai warriors did not wish it any other way. There was only victory or death. And death came either by the enemy's hand or by your own. To Casca it was a stupid way to do business. But death to these small fierce butterflies was less important than their own illusions of the value of their personal honor. Or was it an illusion? Shiu Lao Tze had said to him long before, "If you believe in anything strong enough, is it not true? Perhaps not for anyone else, for they are not you." And Casca had seen dreams and fantasies kill before, dreams of power, gold, vengeance. They all began as illusions.
Turning his head to the left slightly, he was able to see Yeshitsune and his staff observing the course of the battle. Their faces were like rocks, the corners of their mouths downcast in seemingly perpetual scowls of dissatisfaction, but he knew they were well satisfied. They were winning and with the win came new glory and power for all who served the white banner of the Minamoto. Even better, the hated Taira usurpers would be exterminated. Never again would they rise to challenge them for power.
Yeshitsune raised his war fan in a simple offhanded gesture and the sounds began again. From the flanks the
began to beat a drum roll as the drummers received their signals from their officers. Over the din of the thundering basso of the war drums, hitting the high notes in this macabre concert,
, ram horns, started shrilling and the teaming forces of the Taira and Minamoto faced off. The Taira were half encircled on the beach and in such a bad position, they could not use their remaining cavalry to much effect as they had no room to maneuver between the rice paddies on their left flank and the rocky ridges of the coastline on their right.
On their front and both flanks the Minamoto awaited the order to begin the attack. The ships of the Taira were beginning to turn into the shore. Seeing they would have no chance in open battle at sea, the commander had decided that they would take their chances on land rather than face a watery ignoble death at sea. Clumsily they began to tack to the landward. Perhaps if their forces were added to those already facing the armies of the Minamoto, they might have the strength to force the day.
Casca briefly saw the ship he thought bore Emperor Antoku try to come about, then he had to turn his attention back to the fight beginning in front of him. He and Muramasa were assigned to a group of Yeshitsune's own Honyei honor guards. It was they who would have the honor of splitting the Taira forces on the beach into two sections by which they could then be butchered with greater facility.
He and Muramasa were the only ones with blood on their weapons and clothes. The rest of Yeshitsune's personal guards eyed them with obvious envy and even resentment that they had been held back from the battle. He and Muramasa had been brought to Yeshitsune at the end of the last engagement. He had been observing them in action and now he was going to honor them by permitting them to go into the most dangerous part of the battle. They would take the point of his two thousand personal guards and charge straight into the amassed Taira ranks, not stopping until they reached the beach. Once there, they would then hold against attacks from both sides until the remainder of the Minamoto forces engaged and destroyed the Taira who would then be on both of their flanks.
Muramasa was overwhelmed by the honor. Casca was a bit more pragmatic. They were very likely to get their asses cut up badly. Well, he had been told before that he had no true sense of honor. They were right. This was stupid. He was, however, the only one here this day to think so. The samurai of the guards were ecstatic at the honor. Their bodies fairly trembled with expectation.
On the beach the Taira prepared themselves, each man knowing this was most probably his final hour on this earth. They were ready to make their last
moments memorable and honorable ones. Each hoped to be remembered with honor by his enemies this day, for there would surely be no friends left alive to speak of it.
Yeshitsune spoke softly into the ear of one of his aides, a portly man who seemed to make up for his lack of physique by scowling more fiercely than anyone else save his master, which of course would have been very bad manners. Bobbing his head and bowing away from the commander, he rushed over to Muramasa. He held his
, which he had never drawn in battle, as he waddled as fast as he could on bent legs. Casca could overhear him as he hissed at Muramasa. "You have been given a great honor this day. Do not shame our master. He has given you the great distinction of being the first to cast the challenge to the Taira usurpers."
Casca could feel the pride swell up in Muramasa even as he bowed deeply, then fell to his knees facing Yeshitsune and touched his head three times against the earth. Rising, he whispered in the aide's ear, who looked a bit perplexed. Then the aide bobbed his head and raced back to Yeshitsune. Dropping to his knees, he spoke under his breath with much bowing,
then waited a moment until Yeshitsune responded, which he did after looking once with blank eyes in his and Muramasa's direction. Casca had a very strong feeling that something was not going his way at all.
Yeshitsune barked a command and the aide scutt
led crablike back to Muramasa and whispered in his ear, then left to resume his place at his master's side.
Muramasa came to Casca, his faced flushed, chest swelled, his grip on the haft of
so tight the knuckles threatened to break through the tough pads of skin surrounding them.
Affecting the same stern countenance of the samurai, Muramasa barked and hissed at Casca who had trouble understanding him when he was like this.
"Ah, long nose. You have no idea of the honor that I have asked for you this day. It will be glorious and you shall share in everything."
Casca was suddenly very reluctant to ask what the "honor" was and what "everything" consisted of. Then he had the very uneasy feeling that Muramasa was going to tell him something he would rather not hear. Therefore, he said nothing, hoping in vain that perhaps Muramasa would just forget what it was he had to say and go away.
"Ah yes, long nose. I have asked for and have been given permission for you to cast the first challenges with me. Think of it! Alone we shall face the best the Taira dogs have to offer and gain the great honor of serving our master, the Minamoto. Is it not a great service I have done for you this day?"
There was no gracious way to tell Muramasa to go fuck off, so instead he took the coward's way out.
, Muramasa-san. It is a great honor you have done this unworthy long nosed barbarian. I am forever in your debt for the great and kind consideration you have shown this unfortunate and unworthy person this day."
Muramasa returned Casca's bow, well satisfied. It seemed as if at last the barbarian was learning some proper manners.
Casca's sarcasm fell on deaf ears. He was stuck with the situation. Adjusting his
, he pulled his sword loose from the scabbard as the
signaled for the guards of Yeshitsune to advance to the beach. Being the honored ones, he and Muramasa took the lead.
There were many jealous and envious glances at them from other samurai. That these common
should be so placed in front of them was almost too much to bear. Several thought to perform the act of
, a ritual suicide of protest at their treatment, by which their master would know their deep and most sincere feelings of shame at the dishonor he had done them. That was they would commit suicide if they lived through the rest of the day. However, until they did, their lives were their master's and if he so commanded, then it was to be done. It would be unseemly to make the protest before the fact.
From the hill, Muramasa led the band of bodyguards past the cheering battalions who opened ranks to permit them to pass through. Overhead a number of vultures had gathered, circling the battlefield. They were nearly invisible among smaller black forms that flitted and swooped as they, too, waited patiently for their feast for the day. Ravens by the thousands had come from near and far. Many had crossed the straits from Kyushu to be in at the end of the day's eye plucking, a favored delicacy among their kind.
Waves of passion rode over the men as they marched to the sea. Muramasa stepped off in long certain strides, eyes straight ahead, acknowledging nothing. This was his moment. Ahead of him lay his future, death or honor. This was his last chance to achieve his life's ambition, and if it could not be reached, then it was best that he die this day.
Leaking net bags were raised up from the soldiers around
them, bags Casca knew were for containing the heads of the dead enemy. There were
bags for the common dead, and
, buckets with spikes in the bottom for the heads of noble enemies that would be presented later to Yeshitsune and then to his brother. The heads in the buckets were the important ones, for they would prove that the last of the line of the Taira had been exterminated.
As they passed through the legions of the Minamoto, Casca noticed that the cheers they were hearing were somewhat staggered. He and Muramasa received their loudest acclaim when they passed the ranks of the common soldiers, who it appeared took part of the honor being shown Muramasa and Casca unto themselves. The samurai cheered of course, but only for the other samurai of their own class of which he and Muramasa were not members.
The sun had passed its zenith. Heat waves rose and wavered over the dead, taking the heavy cloying smell of blood up to the heavens.
Casca estimated that so far this day over fourteen thousand had died and perhaps that many more would die before the sun fell. The stench of massive death was incredible. The smell of one dead man was bad enough but when it was multiplied ten thousand fold, it was almost overwhelming. But these stalwarts of the sacred Islands of the Gods didn't seem to notice it at all. They wanted more. Casca had fought for or against a hundred armies Mongols, Huns, Romans, Syrians, Visigoths and Persians. None seemed to have the same sophisticated lust for slaughter and death that these men did.
Passing the last rank of pike men and, behind them, three lines of archers, they reached the clearing between their forces and those of the Taira. A space of about three hundred meters lay open in front of them. Across it was the last of the Taira armies that would face the might of the Minamoto. Behind them Casca could see the square sails of their ships coming closer to shore. If they were to win and take minimal losses, they should do it quickly before the Taira ships had a chance to beach and add that strength to their ground forces.
Muramasa halted a moment to view the opposing side. He postured, for this was his day and the eyes of the entire army were locked on him. Looking out the corner of his eye to check on Casca, he moved forward, strutting fiercely. He had the natural born instincts of an actor and this was to be his greatest stage performance.
Moving out to the center of the cleared area, which was not all that clear as several hundred bodies lay scattered about on it, he halted, pointed
at the Taira warriors and called out to them. "I am into Muramasa, son of Kitao the sword maker and killer of Taira scum. I have this day taken fourteen of your warriors' heads, all samurai, and will take twice that number before the last of you die. Is there one who will come to face me? If not, then send two, for my sword has appetite enough for all of you!"
From the Taira came an angry murmur at the insult of a commoner being sent to make challenges reserved for samurai. Arching out of their ranks came a flying shaft set free by a young samurai who did not deem the
to be worthy of honorable individual combat. The shaft sped straight for Muramasa's chest, then in the flicker of an eye
moved, slicing the arrow into two, dropping it, useless, to the bloody earth. From the Taira came a spontaneous sigh of admiration. The
had talent. He was not samurai but he was good. Whoever killed him would be remembered this day if he had indeed taken fourteen heads. There was much sad shaking of heads among the Taira nobles, for their honor would not permit them to accept a challenge from a commoner.
Muramasa stamped his feet in frustration, crying out for them to send three if two would not come and meet him. He was being rejected. The pain of the insult was incredible. Casca just stood by ready to do whatever he had to.
What came next was totally unexpected. A murmur began behind them that grew into a resounding roar: "
" Then absolute silence. Glancing over his shoulder, Casca saw that Yeshitsune had stepped to the edge of the clearing, hands on the hilts of his swords, feet wide spread. Behind him was his standard bearer with the white pennant with the dragon emblazoned in gold thread. The Taira had no doubt as to who he was.
"I am Yeshitsune no Minamoto. I see that the Taira do not wish to wage single combat with even a common supporter of the Minamoto. Therefore, I declare for all to hear and take note that from this moment onward, in recognition of the services they have given, the man Jinto Muramasa and his companion the
, Casca-san, together with their heirs, are forever to be known and respected as true and honorable men.
THEY ARE SAMURAI!
Muramasa nearly fainted. Casca frowned. He had hoped for just a moment that because of their low rank they would not have to fight against the Taira champions. No such luck.
From the Taira a voice boomed to answer Yeshitsune. Casca saw a large heavy boned man in rich armor of the o-yori style, but made for war instead of the court, step out of the ranks.
"Thank you for resolving our difficulty, Yeshitsune
-san. It is indeed seldom the Minamoto do us such a service. Now that the dogs you have sent are samurai, it is permissible to kill them with no loss of honor. Such an event I always enjoy when they are the scum who lick the boots of the Minamoto."
From his scabbard he drew a beautiful blade of watered steel.
"I am Tomomori no Taira, brother to Shigimori and son of Kiyomori. I carry the great sword of Yasutsuna,
, which was used by your own ancestor Minamoto no Yoshimitsu and taken from your family by mine when we kicked you out of Heian-Kyo and whipped you back to your kennels where you belong. Come and take your ancestor's sword back if you can!"
Behind him came one other who begged permission of Tomomori to kill the
. The permission was granted. The two stepped forth on the field. Swords bared, they moved with the confidence of men already victorious. As they neared they separated, each moving to his man.
Casca's opponent was a youngster of, he guessed, about seventeen. His face was as smooth as a baby's bottom and quite handsome with bright clear brown eyes. He had a graceful manner to his walk. If Casca had been able to look closer, he would have seen the robes of silk over his armor had been carefully re
-sewn many times. He was a poor boy from a noble family who hoped the war would bring him great rewards. Now all he had to hope for was a valiant death.
Casca moved, setting himself. He knew he was not as fast as these samurai but he had greater strength. The trick was to pick the time to use it.
He had no time to keep an eye on Muramasa. His youthful opponent moved immediately to the attack. His blade work was fast, as Casca had thought it would be, but his technique was not as good as his. Still it took nearly all his talents to keep the youngster's enthusiastic attacks from breaking through his guard. If there had been any way to avoid it, he would have. But there was no choice. The youngster was a dead man. If not now, then within a few hours he would be. The young man made a sideways slice that Casca blocked, then stepped in close, his sword barring the other's blade, freezing it in position. The young man's face was a study in complete concentration and strain as he tried to break contact, but Casca kept the pressure on, forcing him back one then two steps, giving the young man time to set himself after each shove. Then on the third shove, as the youngster once more tried to set himself, instead of shoving again, Casca stepped back. Unexpected, the sudden release of force jerked the young man forward half a step as he tried to regain his balance. As he did, Cascas's sword quickly plunged in and then back out of his throat. A quick kill. Not following the popular custom of hacking off heads, he turned to see how Muramasa was faring with his opponent, as no one else had come on to the field to challenge him.
Tomomori had come as the
, the wind. His years had not slowed his arm.
, the legendary
, met the
. When they touched and struck each other, it was as if the bells from the temples of Mount Hiei rang out.
Muramasa met every cut, every thrust, letting
lead him. No, he did not let
lead him. He had no choice. The sword took him. His mind was somewhere else observing the fight. Life or death, neither was important, only the dancing, shining
that rang with such beauty with the legendary
of Tomomori. Only in that was there true beauty and meaning. Only in the steel was there any value in life and
, when it danced, was more than his own soul.
He almost felt
, a deep pathos, a sweet sadness, which somehow fulfilled him. This was good! It was the way to not think, to let the sword be the master and take him where it wished. He wanted to weep from pure crystal joy.
Tomomori felt a great weight on his chest, a crushing, heavy weight. His arm grew numb from the repeated counters of the
. And he was
, no matter what the bastard Yeshitsune had declared. But where did this common piece of clay find such skill? And look at his face. It was totally unconcerned. No strain, no effort to indicate that they had been fighting for five minutes. Tomomori had known from the first few contacts that he was going to die. But by the gentle Bhudda, he wanted to take this one with him. Stepping back, he lowered his sword point to his knees, gathering his strength for another rush when Muramasa also stepped back, placed
in its sheath, and turned his back on Tomomori.
From the observers on both sides came a gasp of surprise and awe as Muramasa turned slowly and deliberately away from Tomomori, his
Tomomori thought his heart was going to burst from its cage. How could he? How could this one turn his back on him? He was Tomomori, lord of three provinces, slayer of more than fifty valiant warriors. How could this piece of offal perform such an act?
With a cry of rage he raised his sword. He would make the
turn and face him. All slowed down to a time sense that moved as tree sap in the early days of spring. All saw Tomomori leap into the air,
high above his head, Tomomori's arms coming down for the powerful stroke that would split Muramasa into two parts from shoulder to hip. And still Muramasa seemed to ignore the warning cry Tomomori had given.
was moving, it seemed, with incredible slowness, though all knew it was traveling faster than the eye could truly see. Then Muramasa moved his body, dropping, knees bending him low to the ground, but his upper body erect as if he were still standing.
came out of its house using the whipping, turning motion of Muramasa's body and arms.
and Muramasa began to rise up as they turned to meet Tomomori and
for the last time.
rose higher still. From all sides gasps of awe and wonder came forth spontaneously. Muramasa was making the
reversed the slice being made by
Entering Tomomori's body at his right hip,
reached deep, the tip extending six inches behind Tomomori's back. It slid with apparent ease through the armor, flesh and bones, moving up at an angle of thirty degrees until
broke free of Tomomori's body at the junction of his right shoulder, leaving him in a spray of scarlet as the blood burst forth from severed arteries.
never completed its final move. Tomomori dropped to the earth, intestines steaming out of his body cavity, eyes open, his mouth trying to cast one last curse at the demon warrior with the cursed sword. He had heard of
and its evil. Now as he died he knew it was true. He had felt something when the blade passed through his body. It had been a foretaste of hell.
He died. But just before his eyes glazed over, he saw Muramasa bend over and take
from his own hand, then toss his useless arm away like so much trash.