Authors: Barry Sadler
It was almost
time. All was in readiness for the work to come. Muramasa deemed it exceedingly good fortune and a blessing when his father's longtime servant and assistant at the forges showed his stooped body at their campfire the night before he was to begin work on his
. Gray was the color of him to Casca's eyes. Everything about the old man was gray. His clothes, hair, and skin, the color of ashes long dead.
-san barely controlled his pleasure at seeing the son of his master. It was with difficulty that he fought back tears. Ever since Muramasa's father had died, he had come to this lonely place on holy days to place his small offerings of rice by the springs where the ashes of his master lay in rest. This was to placate and show reverence for the
of the springs whose water had tempered his blades for over forty years. It was here his memories of happiness were the strongest, when he and Muramasa's father had worked the red white steel, side by side.
The old smith gave only one long inquiring look at Casca, to which Muramasa responded in quick, short bursts. Hama
-san bobbed his head in agreement with whatever Muramasa had said, and that was the end of the matter. He placed his woven straw mat down by the fire, spread a weathered and patched
over him, and went to sleep. There would be much work in the morning. Hama-san, who had worked at the side of Muramasa's father for over forty years, was in attendance. His wrinkled, leathery face was a map of his life and times. The eyes were barely visible as black chips of obsidian peering through folds of skin that had been baked over the coals of the fire since he had been a child.
Casca stood by, not knowing exactly what it was he was expected to do, but he had no doubt that Muramasa would let him know when the time came.
Under Muramasa's instructions, all had been purified, including those who would work the steel. They wore their best clothes, such as they were. Hands were scrupulously cleaned, even to the paring of the fingernails, so that no impurity would contaminate the event which was about to take place. Hama-san nodded to Muramasa. The color of the coals was right. It was time to begin.
The first block of iron was put into the coals to slowly gain life, changing colors under the ever constant watch of the two smiths. Their faces changed with the metal as the glow of the coals cast wavering shades of red over them. Hama
-san did not have to be told when the metal was right. Taking the glowing block of metal between the lips of well used copper tongs, he set it upon a small anvil, holding it firm as Muramasa drew in a deep hissing breath. He raised his hammer and made the first of ten thousand blows which would, if the gods were pleased, change a lifeless piece of metal into a living thing of beauty and death.
Casca became trapped in a seemingly never ending cycle of fire, coals, and the smell of hot metal being molded and formed. At times which only he selected, for reasons unknown to Casca, Muramasa would add a piece of the foreign steel to the mass, then hammer the block, each process lengthening the steel, stretching it out, then once more bending it back on itself, welding it to its own soul. Again and again the process was repeated with frequent bathings in purest spring water from his father's well. Each of the smiths took turns tasting and smelling the spring water repeatedly, making many signs and grunts before they proclaimed it suitable for their labors. Casca
lost himself in the process as the two men worked day after day, permitting him at times to hold the tongs as Hama-san aided Muramasa in the forming of the steel, which after six days began to take on a shape unto itself.
Two weeks passed as the three men worked over the small forge, and each day the blade became more than it was the previous day. They were trapped in a web of fire and hammering. Casca tried to keep track of the times Muramasa had bent and fused the white hot metal back on itself, then stretched it out again. He had repeated the process over and over.
The number of fusions that were building up in ever thinner layers was too great for him to count. Never had he seen a blade made in this fashion.
At last, during the hour before dawn, Muramasa left the forge. In his hand was the blade, still to be polished and sharpened, but it was without a doubt a thing of beauty. Holding the naked tang in his hand, Muramasa could feel the life still waiting to be born within it. It was his first. It was his child. It was a Muramasa blade!
The polishing and sharpening of the blade took three days, during which time Hama-san worked on the fittings. He would have preferred to use a bit of gold to make the mountings, but there was none to be had. He did use several of the silver coins they had taken from the samurai they had killed on the beach. Muramasa was careful to ask Casca if it was all right to use the coins, for part of them were his by right of his kill. Casca agreed. He would do nothing to interfere with what the two forge burned smiths were doing. He had to see the ending.
With the silver coins, Hama san made
, a mixture of brass and silver to form the
, the guard, in which he inlayed a willow tree over a tiny spring. It was graceful and delicate to honor the waters which had given the sword its strength. The hilt was of two carefully selected, matched pieces of wood with identical grain from the
tree and covered with a single section of pale, ghost colored
, the bubbled skin of the ray fish.
When all was ready, Hama
-san and Muramasa began to assemble the blade into its final form, the
, blade socket,
, washers of copper, then the
. The last to be applied were the wrappings,
, strong blue silk braid a quarter of an inch in width. All was ready. The
, or collar, and the
, or pommel cap, were in place. The pins were set. The
Muramasa held it in his hands taking the primary stance. Both hands set firm on the long
hilt, he drew in his breath and began to move through the proscribed ritual cuts permitted a samurai. The weapon was good; better than any he had ever felt. But it was as a child in the womb waiting to be born. There was life in the steel, but it was not yet alive. Something was missing or needed to be done. He didn't know just what, but the blade was unfinished. There was something more. Why he thought the katana needed more than he had done he couldn't tell. But in the forming of the weapon he could sense that it was going to be something different, special in some manner. Disappointed, he sat on his haunches and looked at the
, shaking his head slowly, side to side.
"I do not know," he repeated over and over. Casca didn't know what he was talking about. To him the
was a work of incredible art and beauty. What could possibly be wrong with it?
There was little sleep that night, though the three should have gone deeply into the comfort of Morpheus. All were restless with an uneasy feeling of something left undone. At last Muramasa rose while the night was still on them and first light a half hour yet in the distant future.
Catching Casca's wakeful eye, he walked to the edge of the trees surrounding their camp. Taking the
with him, Muramasa motioned for Casca to join him. Together they walked through the dark hills between graceful, sweeping pines. The night was clean. But the new day when Ameratsu cast her first light was incredible. Mist rose from the soft spongy earth, fronds and leaves bent heavy with night dew. The rich smell of good earth rose to meet the new day. The first day since the sword was completed. Still Muramasa wore a troubled expression. There was something between him and the sword that could not be put into words. Something left undone.
He led the way through a green crystal glen. Halting at the edge of the glen, he touched Casca lightly on the forearm with his fingertip. It was a soft, gentle gesture. Then by sign and word, he let Casca know that this was where the spring was.
His well. It had belonged to his father and his father before him. Near the spring Casca saw two small simple carved stone pillars about a meter high resting on squared bases of stone. He knew this was where the ashes of Muramasa's father were layed to rest.
Muramasa felt a swelling in his throat and chest as he looked at the well. It was from here they had always drawn the water to temper their blades. It was not to be drunk from. That would be to defile it. This was a sacred place and human lips were unclean. Muramasa pointed to the other side toward a cleft in the rocks where a small shrine was garnished with fresh flowers from offerings he and Hama
-san had made during the forging process. They were made to honor and placate the
who lived in the well during the purification rituals of the spring water.
Casca could feel the peace of the glen. Birds sang softly in the tree branches, cool, green ferns flourished with abandon among small scarlet flowers with dark eyes on their petals. There was a feel to this place that was different, special. He had felt such things only a few times in his life. Perhaps Muramasa was right and a spirit did live in this quiet place of delicate sounds and lush greenery, listening eternally to the soft music of the bubbling natural well.
Grasping Casca's arm, he hissed for silence and drew him back into the shadows of the pines. Casca could feel Muramasa's body tense. Then he saw what it was that had caused him to draw back to where they were unseen.
Two men in tattered robes furtively edged out of the other side of the glade. One had a bared sword, the other a long bladed halbard type of spear over his shoulder. Casca knew it was called a
. He also had a shorter kind of blade about a foot long stuck into his waistband, what Muramasa had called an
. Casca knew trash when he saw it. It mattered not what country he was in. These two were scum. He could almost smell their unwashed bodies as they cautiously entered the glade. Besides their obvious weapons, each had a bundle tied over his shoulder that contained, Casca guessed, all their worldly possessions, which was probably more than he had.
Keeping one eye on the men and the other on Muramasa, he thought he saw the beginning of a tremble in Muramasa's sword hand. Odd, he'd never seen any overt expression of anxiety before in the mostly silent man not even when they'd killed the samurai by the sea. Then he'd acted as if it had been of no more importance than having a normal breakfast, nothing at all to be excited about.
Muramasa felt the tremor in his hand also, but it didn't seem to be coming from him. Yet there was a definite movement, as with something coming awake. The feeling was almost as that of lightning. Once, when he was a child of eight years, a bolt from the gods had struck close to him, blasting a tree into cinders and ashes, leaving his body tingling, numb, and aching. It was almost that kind of sensation that trickled up his arm into his chest, making his heart beat a bit faster.
The two men worked their way cautiously closer to the well. They moved much like animals of a lower order, partially bent over, eyes jerking back and forth in their skulls. As they moved closer to the spring, Muramasa felt his pulse beat quicken in his temple, his face began to grow hot and flushed, and the tremor increased in his hand. He could not control the feelings coming over him. Never had he been so weak as not to be able to control a shake in his hand or leg. What he felt inside was an increasing rage. His hand tightened on the handle of his sword and the blade trembled heavily in response.
The smaller of the two men, the one with the sword, was at the edge of the well. His comrade stood behind him facing the way they had come. Perhaps they were being pursued? The smaller man gave his head a quick furtive jerk from side to side as he took one last look around. Then he knelt on all fours to drink from the well as a dog would, lapping the crystal water into loose lips, sucking in the cool clean fluid between slime whitened gums.
Coming to his feet, Muramasa recognized the feeling coming over him. It was rage white hot rage that filled his soul. Not thinking, he began to run forward, sword in hand, the new steel flashing clean in the bright air. He moved as never before. How dare those unclean things drink from the well of his
father. On silent feet he was on the man before Casca was able to rise fully to his feet and follow. The smaller man sensed something. He began to rise from all fours, his right hand starting to raise his sword. He was half erect when Muramasa reached him. The trembling in his hand had now reached all of his body. Within and without, he was shaking with fury, with a need to cleanse the filth before him from the face of the sacred land. His sword rose. He didn't control it. It was not his thinking that guided the weapon. His body followed the movement of the blade. Then it swung down as his breath was exhaled between clenched teeth.
The cut was from the junction of the neck just above the seventh vertebra, then through the collarbone, angling to the sternum, slicing through the cartilage and spinal column, then beneath the floating rib the blade came forth. The smaller man slid in two pieces to the green earth. The motion was not stopped when the sword cut through the drinking man. It continued of its own volition, corning back in an up hand angle strike that took the gaping man's arm off at the shoulder,
then continuing in a smooth sweep. The blade turned in mid-air as Muramasa followed it. The steel sliced through the man's neck. The movement was so rapid that the man's arm had not yet reached the earth when the blade was already in his neck, separating it from his shoulders to fall dully to the grass beside his arm. The severed neck spouted a scarlet foaming fountain from the open arteries, as the mouth jerked open and closed with the blinking of the man's eyes. It would be a few seconds before the head knew it was dead.