Authors: Barry Sadler
The enemy was dead, but Muramasa could not control the passion within him. It kept his arms rising and falling. The steel of the katana dipped deep, slicing and tearing away at the already dead flesh at his feet. Then as it had come, it was gone, slowly draining away from his face, shoulders and arms.
Leaving him, this time, trembling naturally.
He turned to face his barbarian companion, his robes splattered with blood. Casca paid no attention to the mangled corpses at the edge of the well. It was Muramasa's face that captured him. The expression was beatific, sexual, as if he had achieved the ultimate sensual experience. He didn't understand, but Hama
-san, who had come upon the scene seconds before Muramasa attacked the interlopers, knew what had occurred.
There had been something left undone. The pure water of the well was not enough for this blade. It demanded blood. It had
a karma of its own. It would have to drink and drink forever as long as a hand would carry it. Hama san shivered at the thought.
Muramasa raised the bloody
above his head. Thick red gore ran down the shining steel to collect in clots on the sleeves of his
Voice hoarse, rasping, he cried out in pride and anguish as Ameratsu hid behind a cloud, as if she did not wish her sacred light to witness what defilement had occurred on the spring.
"Now you are truly tempered and you have chosen your name. WELL DRINKER!"
From the west, winds blew through the needles of the pine trees, bringing with them the promise of rain. For now it was only pleasantly cool, but with the night a heavier chill might come.
Muramasa squatted by the charcoal brazier, his face empty, void of all emotion. He was resting from his labors, for the work had been long and hard. He had poured his soul into the making of the blade, which lay before him on a clean white cloth of cotton. By the flickering light of the charcoals, it wavered and moved. The steel was alive as nothing he had ever experienced was alive. It had a soul. He knew it. He could feel it. This was not a normal blade, for it had been born in blood.
, he was almost afraid of it, but as with many things one feared, he was irresistibly drawn to it.
Across the fire, the face of the barbarian was red and glowing. It was an incredibly ugly face with the gray eyes and the scar running down the side of it. And the hair was washed out and was pale and unhealthy looking. In spite of all that, he felt somehow it was a good face. And for a barbarian, he had the good manners to say nothing at this delicate moment.
At last, deep bone draining weariness settled over him. Making an effort to keep the words simple, he told Casca that it was time to sleep for their work was done here. On the morrow they would travel far to the north. Grunting his understanding, Casca lay back under their shelter, wrapping his thin robes about him, and waited for the sleep to come. He knew that Muramasa wanted some time alone with his thoughts. It was well enough. He was tired, and with the refreshing winds and rain to come, he knew he would sleep well this night and be ready for what the next day might bring.
The rains did come but they were gentle, restful, as the drops fell in easy patterns from the tips of pine needles to scent the earth and the air. He had learned much during the time of the sword making.
A word, a phrase here and there. Not perfect, but they were beginning to understand more about each other, though to tell the truth, Casca found Muramasa to be as much of a mystery and as fascinating as any man he'd ever met. Never had he seen such concentration as he and his old helper had on their faces when they worked the steel. He also saw the first sign of fear on one of their faces when, after returning from the spring, the helper had, with Muramasa's permission, touched the blade now called Well Drinker. Instantly, as if the blade were fresh from the coals, he jerked back his weathered hand, looked at Muramasa, bowed his head, gathered his few belongings, and left the camp without another word, not even looking back. Casca wondered what had gone on but couldn't fathom it.
Overhead the clouds moved in, luminescent at first, then growing darker. The back of his mind was aware for some time that Muramasa did not sleep, that he walked the night with the new sword of his making in his hands. Sometimes he thought he heard voices and could only speculate that Muramasa was talking to the gods or his father's spirit as he knew was the custom among the Chin.
Muramasa did indeed speak to the gods and his father that night. He railed at them and prayed for guidance. He threatened to cast the sword into a lake but knew he could not. And as always, he found at last that he could not escape his karma. What was to be, would be. The sword was with him and they would gather their few belongings together and leave the camp. When first light came, Muramasa did not look back either. It was as if he were leaving something behind and had no wish to return. A part of his life was finished and something new was to come. He was not the same man as he had been the day before. Something awaited him.
When Casca asked Muramasa where they were going, Muramasa only growled in his fashion and pointed to the north. "Yoritomo Minamoto." That was it, and Casca guessed it had to be enough. He hitched his pack a bit higher on his shoulder. It was a little heavier now. The additional weapons they had acquired from the dead men by the spring and their few belongings gave them sufficient provisions to make their way for some time.
As Casca had guessed, they were outlaws of some kind. They had with them several different coins of value including three small pieces of gold. If they had to they could sell the dead bandits' swords, to eat, even though they were of poor quality and not nearly the temper of the swords they'd taken by the sea.
Their first day's march they kept to the mountain trails, though often they could see the sparkling blue of the sea in the distance. Muramasa led the way with long, certain strides. He moved as a man with a mission. Casca just brought up drag, not really having any other choice. Whatever Muramasa was going to do he was involved in it. That was enough for now.
Twice in three days Muramasa traded off some of their captured goods for food and better clothing. He seemed to have suddenly decided that they needed a more prosperous appearance. The poorly made blades of common iron were not worth robes of silk but they did bring each of them two outfits of good quality cotton, though Casca would have preferred a combination other than trousers of deep plum set off by a yellow and black striped tunic. Muramasa took the better grade of clothes for himself, which he deemed as only his right, for he was without a doubt the leader of their two man expedition. And it was painfully obvious that his companion was at best a higher grade of low class barbarian and should therefore be satisfied with anything he was given.
On midday of the fourth day, Muramasa became a bit uneasy
as they came down from the mountains. He pointed to a valley below where neat squared paddies were filled with young green rice sprouting as far as the eye could see until the fields reached the more brackish lands of the beach. Squatting on his haunches, Muramasa screwed his face up tight in deep concentration. Looking first back over his shoulders to the mountain path, then back down to the valley, Casca thought he was trying to make up his mind which was the best route to take. The nights were cold in the mountains, though neither complained. What concerned Muramasa was that the going was becoming slower. At last Muramasa arose, shook his broad shoulders, and pointed down to the valley. With a grunt he spoke one word, "Taira," and touched the handle of his sword, Well Drinker. Casca understood him. Whoever was master down there was the ally of the Taira, whose clan Muramasa had been fighting against and had been hunted by.
Whatever Muramasa had in mind, he was in a hurry, and to journey the mountain trails was eating up too much time. They would take the valley road and hope for the best.
As for Casca, his eyes were full of everything new. He'd not seen very much of this strange land of small, intense people, only a few villages from the distance which did not appear to be very much different from those he'd seen in the southern parts of Chin. Though he had the feeling that if all the men of this strange land were as intense as Muramasa, they would be very hard to deal with if they ever got together on a single project.
Two hours before sunset they had reached a good well traveled road. Casca drew many curious stares from the peasants they passed, but none stopped or questioned them. For the two strangers carried swords. They would leave any questions to others with swords. And as Casca's luck would have it, that's exactly that they ran into. Coming their way were three men on horseback wearing armor of a kind he'd never seen before: over
-lapping plates of red and black trimmed with gold, broad helmets of the same colors and face guards that gave them the aspect of demons. The leader was obviously more richly dressed than the two warriors escorting him. Over his armor was a surcoat of rich light blue silk and over that a longer robe of brilliant rainbow colors interwoven into a hunting scene with many swans, cranes, and waterfowl. His face, like the others, was covered by a mask that showed only his obsidian eyes peering fiercely through the slits.
When they spotted Muramasa and Casca, they reined up their horses, blocking the road.
Casca had been in too many of these situations not to recognize trouble when he saw it. Just the angles of their bodies and their postures meant these men were not going to let them go easily. He shifted his pack so it would be easier to drop and adjusted the grip on the
. It would be of more use against mounted horsemen than his sword. The leader of the horsemen called out to them. He couldn't recognize the words but the tone of contempt and anger was clear.
Muramasa stood his ground, his back tensing. Under his robes he flexed his muscles, loosening them up while on the surface he appeared calm and detached as Sakai Taira spoke to him as if he were no more than the dust under his lowest samurai's feet.
"Ho, dog. These are my lands and I have given no one permission to use my roads or carry weapons on them."
Muramasa bowed slightly, only a half bow, a deliberate insult.
"I regret that we found no one to ask permission of. But as you see, we are only poor wandering men of no value. We seek no problems and apologize most deeply if we have offended any by our presence." The words were mild but Sakai knew they were not sincere. He was being mocked by this unclean thing before him. However, the
and his incredibly ugly and large barbarian companion might provide him and his samurai a few moments of diversion.
"It matters not who you might have asked. For
I have already judged and condemned you. For I am Sakai Taira, kinsman, guardian, and lord of this province for Taira seii Taishogun.
Muramasa bobbed his head up and down.
Hai, so desu?
" As he acknowledged that he did understand, he dared to question whether all that Sakai had said was indeed a fact.
Sakai could not tolerate such disrespect from this
, this handler of dead things and offal. He was beneath his attention. To his
, he would give the opportunity to cleanse his road for him. As his sworn vassals they had only one duty, and that was to do his bidding at the cost of their lives if he so wished. To fail to do his bidding was to achieve the same end, only in an extremely more unpleasant manner.
He spoke, barely able to control the anger in his body. "Kill those things which walk like men, but smell as if they are already long dead."
Without pause the two horsemen instantly spurred their mounts on, drawing their swords at the same time they rushed down on Muramasa and Casca. Dropping his pack, Casca moved to the side of the road, jumping on a small ridge, a channel used to irrigate the rice fields, giving him a couple of more feet in height and forcing the on rushing riders to come to him on his ground. They would have to rein up or their horses would go over the side into the rice paddies.
He needn't have worried too much about both of them reaching him. As they rode down on them, Muramasa drew Well Drinker, made a low, whirling movement with his body, dropped to knee level in a powerful swing, then twisted his body up, leaping into the air at the exact time the lead rider reached him. The lead samurai's sword was on the down swing when Well Drinker came into contact with his body at the waist. The impetus of the horse gave the razor edged
all the force it needed to slice through the plates of lacquered armor as if they were thin silk. It entered the softer, warmer tissue beneath with enough force to slice the man's body almost in two. The samurai keeled over backwards in his saddle, his body trying to break at the spine. As he bent, intestines bulged forth and out over the front of his saddle to trail along the side of his wild eyed horse.
The second rider was heading for Casca, his sword cutting wheels in the air as he closed on the barbarian
, thinking Casca was only another hairy Ainu tribesman from the northern lands. Casca had no trouble in his use of the
in locking the horns of the halberd on the blade of the samurai. A quick pull and a twist and the samurai's sword flew over his head to be lost in the mud of the rice paddy. Then Casca made a quick circular cross blow that brought his broad blade snapping back to connect at the junction of the jaw and the samurai's throat rings. It was not a particularly heavy blow, but sufficient enough to open up the man's throat so he was well on his way to whatever heaven or hell he believed in. The horse reared as it came face to face with the barbarian standing on the bank of the dike and nearly sat on its haunches as it dropped its dying rider off its back. Leaping down from the dike, Casca moved to stand beside Muramasa as they faced the last of the enemy.
Sakai had observed the actions of his men against the two
with detachment. Obviously his vassals deserved to die if they could not take the heads of two such as these. They were of no import. He would attend to that small detail himself now that these two had proved themselves to be at least worthy of the effort of drawing his sword, Willow Song, from its sheath. He did, however, take notice of Muramasa's movements against his samurai. They were quick and skillful. He would do better to face this one on earth where his feet were solidly planted, for he was not known as a great horseman. As for the
, he refused to let the odds of two against one bother him. He had dealt with greater odds before.
Muramasa motioned Casca back. His blood was singing a song of blood passion. Well Drinker was ready. They were as one, the shining steel and the master. And he the student who stood apart, detached from the action, he was the servant of the blade. Never had he felt so alive. He did not wish to share any of the blood with his big nosed companion. There was even a slight sense of anger that the barbarian had taken one of his kills from him.