Authors: Barry Sadler
Forcing his eyelids open, the first sensation he had was of incredible pain. Sucking in his breath, he held it for a long time, slowly letting it out to fight the fire that burned like acid in every atom of his body. Through the haze of his pain, he could see a half hunched shadow, a dark shape against the gray of a new day. He didn't remember who it was or even how he had gotten to where he was. All was a blur of half thoughts. One thing was certain:
someone had to have helped him.
By all the gods of every hell and heaven, he hurt. He fought back another wave of fire through his veins. What had happened? The last he knew he was hanging on to the hunk of timber after the ship of Chin went down. One minute it was fighting the storm, the next it was just gone, washed over by a monstrous wave. He had ridden out two days of the storm before things went blank. How long ago had that been? Now he was here, wherever here was. They had been going to the southern lands of the kingdom of Khmer when the winds blew them away, from the shore and off course.
A groan forced its way between his clenched teeth.
Muramasa opened his eyes.
Ah so deska!
Nodding his head politely to the pale man, he asked, "
Anata yoku nemutta ka?
Casca Longinus didn't have the faintest idea that he'd been asked if he'd slept well, but the tone was courteous. He bowed his head back. He'd spent enough years in the land of the Chin to know that basic courtesy and ritual between men.
Muramasa bowed his head again. "
, very good." At least the barbarian had some iota of manners and it was good to have someone with him after his long time in hiding.
Sliding over to him, Muramasa handed him the water bottle and waited until the barbarian drank, noting the man, even though he was obviously in distress, did not drink all the water. He saved a fair portion and handed the bottle back, bowing his head again.
, very, very good." This might prove to be most interesting.
Casca noted the man's hand never left the hilt of his sword. Muramasa indicated a copper bowl by his side in which were pieces of raw fish cut into thin slivers and garnished with pieces of seaweed flavored with saltwater. It was all he had. Taking his time, Casca ate again, feeling the strength rush back into his limbs as the food was turned into energy.
Patiently, Muramasa sat in silence until the meager meal was finished. Pointing at the bowl, the
Casca repeated the word and touched the bowl. "Very good, thank you." He bowed his head again.
Deciding to take a chance, though he didn't have to, Muramasa removed the poniard from his waistband, handing it over to Casca in the flat palm of his calloused hand.
Casca took the blade. It felt good to have a weapon with him once more. Noting the eyes of Muramasa, he hesitated only a moment before taking the blade and laying it in the palms of both open hands, offering it back to the smaller man and lowering his head and upper body as he did so.
He knew the importance of such an offering in Chin where only one with complete confidence and trust would offer up his only weapon. And this man, though he wasn't exactly like those of the land of the Lotus, was similar enough that he thought they might have some of the same culture and habits in common.
For the first time, Muramasa released his grip on his sword and with both of his hands took back the Spanish dagger.
Ah domo arigato
." He thanked Casca. He, too, knew what it meant for a fighting man, and this pale one was most certainly that, to give up his only weapon. It was an act of trust and confidence. Most proper under the circumstances.
Making signs, he indicated for Casca to rest while he went outside. It was time to scavenge for more food. Now that he had two mouths to feed, it would take a bit longer. Still it was promising to be a most interesting day. He would see if the barbarian could learn civilized speech. He seemed intelligent enough, and he would like to hear of distant lands and peoples. Ah, indeed. As his father had said, he was cursed with great curiosity. However, that too was his karma, and one could not fight what one was. Accept and enjoy.
It was three days before Casca left the small cave. During that time Muramasa taught him one word after another. By the time he was ready to go
out, he basically understood that Muramasa was in hiding, having been on the losing side of a war. Well, that was a situation he was also familiar with. He had been hunted and enslaved more than once during his long, weary existence.
He helped Muramasa gather food, taking care to avoid being seen by the occasional peasant or fisherman who came to their section of the cove. As he did, the unnatural paleness of his skin quickly returned to normal as did his strength. He found nothing curious about Muramasa's eating habits. Raw fish and seaweed he'd ingested more than once. Food was food, though he wished now and then for a piece of rare beef. But it was not available, so he had to make do.
The days turned into two weeks, and by then they were able to make most of their wants known to each other. As always, Casca had a gift for tongues. He found the bandy legged
a fascinating man. At times when Casca would be on watch, Muramasa would go through training exercises with the sword that he called a
. It was hard to recall when or even if he'd seen better or more interesting sword play. Everything was a ritual, but a most deadly one he had no doubt. Muramasa had his share of scars to prove it. Casca knew that it would take many years of training to handle a sword the way Muramasa did. It was not something to be learned with ease. It was an art. Still he felt his own techniques would serve him well enough if push came to shove. They always had in the past. It was during one of these exercises when Casca saw a gleam reflect from behind an outcropping of black boulders a hundred meters away. Then another.
He was too far away to warn Muramasa without letting those who were sneaking up on him among the rocks know that they had been seen. Sliding down between a pair of black boulders covered with small grayish lichens, he began working his way away from the beach. Moving at an angle, which he hoped would put him to the intruders' rear and flank, he speculated on how many there were. This might be an opportunity to get
himself refitted with clothes and weapons that he desperately needed. It was damned uncomfortable crawling around on the rocks with only a loincloth for a cover.
Standing between the boulders where the surf just lightly touched his feet, Muramasa seemed oblivious to all except his sword rituals. The square angles of his face were forced into stern lines; the corners of his mouth went down in a ferocious scowl as though he
were very angry and on the verge of exploding inside. The
shimmered in the early light as he sliced through bodies that weren't there. Attack, counter, slice, withdraw, and attack again.
Keeping as low as he could, Casca raised his head. There they were! Now he could see all of them. There were three men who looked very much like Muramasa, except their robes were in good condition and gray in color with an ideogram on the breasts and backs he couldn't recognize. One had a strange looking helmet on, almost like the shell of a turtle secured on his head by a bright blue cloth tied beneath his chin. The other two were obviously lesser types as they followed the turtle helmet's every hand signal instantly. Their heads were bare, the hair having been partially shaved away leaving a peculiar looking scalp lock. All of them had two blades with them a long sword much like Muramasa's in their hands, and smaller ones of the same slender, slightly curving shape, about the length of a Roman gladius, stuck in the waistbands of their robes.
He would have liked to have warned Muramasa, but to do so would have given his position away. With three of them, surprise was needed. If he could time it right, he'd still be able to give Muramasa warning before they attacked.
Sliding his body over the cold, wet boulders, he slid like a snake. It wasn't too difficult. The three men's attention was on Muramasa, who continued with his exercises. When they reached the last line of boulders, separating them from the beach where Muramasa worked his sword play, they hesitated a moment, conferring with hushed voices and gestures. Casca knew that turtle head was giving them their instructions. He was about fifteen feet behind them, gathering his legs under him, ready to make a lunge and take out at least one of them, then get his weapon, and give Muramasa time to come to his aid. He was still preparing to lunge when without warning they burst out at a run. Swords held high, they raced at Muramasa, who seemed oblivious to all about him. Casca started to yell a warning when Muramasa turned faster than anything he'd ever seen, making his movement still seem no more than a part of his exercises. He whirled down and came up with a two handed stroke Casca had never seen before. It sliced an attacker's sword arm off. Coming up from under the armpit without ceasing his movement, he circled back around, ready for the others. The man who had just lost his arm stood still for a moment, gazing with wonder at his limb lying on the black sand, the hand still holding the grip of his
. Then he fell to his knees and waited to die as his life's blood poured from the amputated shoulder.
The other two were on Muramasa, not hesitating for their wounded comrade. They tried to get Muramasa between them. His sword flickered around them, parrying, thrusting, slicing,
blocking every strike they made. Casca was on his feet, moving. With their concentration on Muramasa, they didn't hear the hiss of his feet on the sand. He grabbed the upraised sword arm of the one with the scalp lock. Twisting him around, he struck him across the throat with his left elbow, crushing the larynx. Ripping the sword from his hand, he turned to aid Muramasa.
The turtle head was just now aware the game had changed. Backing off, he lowered his
to where its tip nearly touched the earth and sucked in a great breath of air, preparing himself to meet both of them. There was no fear in his eyes beneath the comical helmet. Only deadly acceptance of his karma.
With a shake of his head, Muramasa told Casca to stay out of it. Setting forward, his body at right angles, he raised his
in a two handed grip, stepping forward with a sliding dance motion. The turtle head countered. They began to move slowly, gracefully.
Casca knew that Muramasa was treating him to an object lesson in the art of the sword. He squatted down, sitting on the back of the man he'd just killed to watch the two men on the beach engage in their dance of death. He had to admit it was beautiful. Never had he seen such style. They would instantly rush, meet, their swords ringing off each other, then be on opposite sides again, sucking in air, growling beneath their breath as they gathered themselves again. Then once more they rushed at each other, both with upraised blades held in double hands, and it was over.
Casca wasn't sure he'd seen the stroke. One second Muramasa's sword was in the air above his head. Then he was down in a whirling motion and coming back up, the razor edge slicing open the turtle head from groin to chest. And then he was back in his preparatory stance with upraised blade, his face calm, expressionless, except for a glazed look to the eyes as if he'd just reached the peak of sexual satisfaction.
Turtle head dropped to his knees, his sword falling from his hands as he tried to hold bulging intestines from spilling out of his abdomen. He raised his eyes to Muramasa and spoke a few words rapidly. Muramasa grunted and bowed his head slightly. Stepping forward to the man's side, he waited. Turtle head half bowed from the waist, extending his head out, baring the nape of the neck. Instantly the katana in Muramasa's hand flashed again. The head fell free, the mouth open and moving as if it had one last thing it wanted to say. Then the body slumped forward.
Reaching into his robe top, Muramasa removed a silk cloth and carefully wiped the blood from his sword. Then with a quick, sure movement, he reversed the blade and slid it into its scabbard, signifying everything was finished.
Muramasa moved to his kills. After separating the head of the man with one arm, he began stripping the bodies. Nodding his head at Casca, he indicated for him to do the same to the man he'd killed. Casca went to it with alacrity, glad to don the robes of the dead samurai. They were a bit small, but as they wore them loose here, they'd fit well enough.
Best of all were the weapons: a long sword, a
similar to Muramasa's, and a shorter one Muramasa called a
. Inside the robe was a small red silk purse with several silver coins and a few of copper. He had money again. Just the touch of it made him feel more like a civilized man of means.
When they finished stripping the bodies of all of value, Muramasa glanced at the sea. The tide was beginning to go out. With Casca's help, he moved the bodies into the water, letting the ocean take them out from where, with luck, they would never return. The heads being heavier than water, Muramasa simply tossed them out as far as he could,
leaving it to the crabs to clean them up.
Gathering their spoils, they returned to their cave to figure out what their next course of action would be.
By words, signs, and grunts, Muramasa made it clear they had to move. The long arm of someone or something called Taira had reached out for him. Casca thought it most likely they had been spotted by a peasant who turned them in for a reward. But then it could have just been an accident the three samurai had come along when they did. But it was best not to count on accidents. Making up two packs of their goods, they left the cave, Muramasa taking him along a narrow black rock path away from the ocean and island. Once they were in the open, Muramasa moved with strong, long, sure strides for someone who was a bit bow legged, and Casca had to struggle to keep up with him. His strength had not fully returned. He stuck his two new swords in his waistband as he saw Muramasa do. He didn't know that to any samurai who saw them wearing their swords in such a fashion it was a deadly insult, which could only be answered with death. But he was now a
too, though he still didn't understand just what it meant to be a
. They were outside the law and most would die while still quite young, unless they found a master to attach themselves to.
The wearing of the two swords meant nothing to Casca. He'd done it before a dozen times; a long blade and a short one were normal, but to Muramasa it was something that ate at his soul. True, he wore the
, but he was not entitled to them. He would, if he lived long enough, one day be samurai. That he swore to himself long ago. He would have the right to wear the two swords before he died, and to be ready for that time he had to have a plan. Perhaps the pale scar faced one would be of help in this matter. For to be noticed by the great men, the
, one had to be special. With the pale strange looking barbarian beside him, he would most certainly be noticed no matter where he went. That, of course, could also prove to present some problems, as it would not be long before the samurai and hirelings of the Taira family knew of his existence. But then again, as always, it was what was in one's karma that really mattered; nothing could change that.
Leading the way, skirting the scattered villages, Muramasa took him away from the coast, climbing higher into the range of blue hazed mountains
lying a few miles inland. From what he saw, the countryside was similar to the lands of Chin – square, carefully tended fields of rice and small plots of vegetables. In most fields men and women in baggy clothes worked bent over, moving in a rythym as old as the land they worked.
When anyone approached them, Muramasa would move off the rails away from them before they could get close enough to get a good look at his strange companion. It was not yet time to let the world know of him. That must be delayed yet a time longer,
then it would not matter.
They traveled all that day and into the night, making camp by a waterfall that cascaded down in bright sparkles of light, laying a fine mist over them.
A small fire hidden from view by a ring of boulders helped to drive away some of the chill. Casca was more than pleased that he'd been fortunate enough to acquire some new clothes. If they had to come up here dressed as he had been, it would have been a most uncomfortable night. As it was, it was a hungry night, but Muramasa didn't make any protest and neither did he, though he did look at the pond by the waterfall, wondering if there might be fish in it. Deciding to try his luck in the morning, he cut a branch from a tree and with his shorter blade whittled out a fish spear using pieces of split bamboo to make a pronged trident.
Muramasa wrapped his extra rob: about him, ignoring Casca. The robe was his. He felt no need to offer any part of it. Placing his
close to his body, hand on the hilt, he closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath, then letting it out slowly to clear his mind and open it for the night's sleep.
Casca did the same. Resting his back against a moss covered boulder, he rested his head on his knees, his own sword close to hand, and wondered what the next days would bring. There was something about these new people that was much different than the Chin. They were quicker, more dynamic, and they killed without hesitation. He would have to learn all he could if he was to avoid a duel every time he turned around.
Before dawn his eyes opened along with his ears. The rustle of brush brought him up and around, sword in hand. Muramasa was coming back from the pond, Casca's fish spear in one hand and a string of fat fish strung through the gills on a green reed in the other.
Casca felt a bit put out that he had not awakened when Muramasa left the camp and even more because he had not had a chance to use the spear that he'd made. But after a breakfast of fresh fish wrapped in mud and baked in the coals of their morning fire, he felt in a forgiving mood.
By signs and gestures, Muramasa made it known that they were going high into the mountains to a place he'd been before with his father who had been a swordsmith. The father was dead now and that was all Casca got out of him.
After they crossed the first range of mountains, Muramasa left him for a time to go into a village where he bought food. He brought back rice beans and a white jelly looking stuff which to Casca had no taste at all, but Muramasa smacked his lips in relish over the bean curd cakes he called tofu.
They saw no one after three more days of travel, but they did pass a few small stone shrines on the way where offerings of flowers had been made, showing that this trail was used from time to time by others. Toward evening of the second day, Muramasa pointed to a small valley set between green vibrant hills. Following his finger, Casca saw a hut and a small plot of land that looked overgrown and unattended. It was clear from the flush on Muramasa's face that they were nearing their destination.
Striding forcefully forward, Muramasa went to the thatch roofed house and swung open the sliding doors which were panels of rice paper, long since eaten away, leaving only thin dirty rags hanging from weathered frames. Removing his
, he entered the house with bare feet, bowing his head in honor of the memory of his father.
All was bare, long since it had been stripped of its few possessions and furniture by passersby. That did not bother Muramasa, for it was the memory that mattered, not the physical things of his life here in the mountains above the sea.
Leaving the house, he went to the rear of the hut. There was what he had hoped he would find buried beneath an anvil of ancient stone. His father's tools: his hammer and the round steel rod for polishing the
. But most important was what they had brought back from the land of Chin so many years ago – the foreign metal. It would be the heart of the sword, the core metal, the
. There was enough for one more sword, a master blade into which he would pour his soul, forging his spirit into the red hot steel. He would make a blade equal to the grass cutting sword of Prince Yamato-dake, the Kusunagi no Tsurugi of ancient legend.
forward, he began to explain that here they would work and the pale one would assist him. It took a bit of doing, but at last Casca understood. Muramasa was going to do something special.
As if to say the condition of the house did not matter, Muramasa had them make camp outside near the forge. He would permit them this one last day to rest, for on the morrow they would begin.
With dawn, Muramasa began to gather what he would require. There were small piles of the special pine charcoal left from time past. The small bellows of skin had to be repaired from where the rats had eaten at it. And the entire area had to be purified to drive away any spirit who might try to interfere with his work or cause him evil. Curious, Casca stood aside during most of this, watching Muramasa move from one place to another, bowing, going to his knees and chanting. There was a great deal of gesturing and arm waving involved. Casca knew what was going down and knew it was best if he just stayed out of the way until Muramasa needed him. This was between the
and his gods and not something for an outsider.
At last Muramasa seemed to be satisfied. From nooks and crannies he scurried until he had what he needed to begin. First he made a
, a template of wood, a model to guide his thoughts as he worked the metal. The
would hang where it was always in his sight and mind. Then would come the preparation of the fire. Every move was a ritual that had been prescribed and truly followed for hundreds of years. There was no variance permitted. A thing was either right or it was not. There was no middle ground or mistakes.
Casca would be the first
to ever witness the making of a
. It would be long centuries before another was so honored.