Authors: Barry Sadler
Sakai Taira was no mean swordsman as he had proved time and again over forty three years of battles for the honor of his family. Stepping forward, he called to Muramasa, "Are you ready to die, slime from the gut of an eta whore?"
Muramasa bowed formally. Straightening, he brought Well Drinker up slowly, then instantly went into an eye splitting series of movements, slices, and cuts. He never left his basic position: right foot forward, body slightly leaning, his weight evenly distributed with his center, strong, ready to move in any direction as the
danced in his hands, catching the light of the afternoon sun.
, I am ready, are you, for this day another Taira worm will feed the earth with his blood. Now let us dance the dance of swords for the enlightenment of the
Sakai felt his face flush with blood, Stepping forward, he didn't wait, but went into a whirling attack designed to break down his opponent's defense by forcing him to respond to each attack, which would in the end leave him open for the killing blow. The opening did not come. Two minutes passed and the
never wavered. The detestable scum laughed at his feeble efforts, driving Sakai to greater fury in his attacks.
Muramasa laughed evilly and with great pleasure. Half a dozen times he could have ended the contest. No! Well Drinker could have ended it. But the game had to be played
a bit longer. Sometimes it was not enough to simply kill. The opponent must be humiliated, ashamed. That made his death sweeter, and Muramasa knew full well the shame in Sakai's soul, to be beaten by a common soldier. If there had been a way to stop the contest at this point, he had no doubt that Sakai would have had to perform seppuku to relieve his name of the dishonor being cast upon it with each block and counterblow from the bandit with the shining sword.
Three minutes and Muramasa's arm felt as fresh as when the first blow was struck, but the strain was telling on Sakai. His face was florid and his movements were becoming slower and more awkward. The years of rich food and soft women instead of practice were taking their toll. He was going to die and now he knew it. Drawing back, he prepared himself for his final attack. From his
he withdrew the companion to his
, a shorter blade of something over a foot in length. Now that he had accepted his death, he would take this laughing
with him. A calmness pulled the blood back from his face. The trembling in his arms ceased as he regained control of his breathing, sucking the air deep into his lower abdomen. Muramasa knew what was taking place. Sakai was committing himself to death at this moment.
Casca also sensed that the game was about to reach its finale.
Resting his weight on the haft of the
, Casca concentrated on the fight, if it could be called that. It was obvious from the opening moves that Sakai was seriously outmatched and Muramasa was toying with him. What he had seen Muramasa do in the past was nothing compared to the lesson he was giving the samurai lord. Muramasa began to surgically dismantle Sakai, cutting his expensive robes into ribbons, barely touching the flesh beneath. He cut only enough to open the skin so it would bleed but never enough to maim or kill.
Sakai halted, drew back, and removed his mask. Beneath it his face was a combination of red flushed skin and white lips. He sucked in breath to feed his burning lungs. Muramasa gave him his chance to take in fresh air. And then he moved, this time with a difference. The game was over; now it was time to kill. And kill he did. Before Sakai could counter, his sword arm was taken off at the elbow, leaving him his shorter blade in his left hand. Then it, too, was on the earth. Sakai dropped to his knees, staring at his bloody stumps. He had only seconds to live and knew it. Raising his eyes to Muramasa, he pleaded without saying a word and leaned forward, extending his neck out. Well Drinker whistled through the air and Sakai's head rolled free of its body.
Muramasa stood back from the body of his victim, eyes red with blood passion, chest heaving, sweat rolling freely down his face and arms. It was, again, beyond sexual experience. He knew he was close to the edge of some unknown nirvana. Casca's wondering eyes were ignored. If the
had come to him at that time, he might have turned Well Drinker on him.
Casca could feel the vibrations transmitting from Muramasa. Instinctively he waited for the trembling to pass and his breathing to return to normal. Then and only then did he speak. "We go now?”
Muramasa turned to stare at the unexpected voice that had interrupted his thoughts. It took a moment for it to register. Then his eyes cleared, the fog lifting from them.
. We go."
Casca rounded up the horses. They had lost one but that left them two including the fine bay gelding Sakai had been riding. After stripping the bodies of goods and weapons, they were quite well outfitted. Casca tossed the naked bodies over the side of the ditch. That might give them a little time before someone found the remains and a search for the killers was started. Mounted on the saddles were
cases with Mongol style laminated bows and shafts in them. Obviously the retainers of Lord Sakai had not deigned them worth killing by arrows.
After tossing the last body over, Casca finished packing their goods in the saddlebags and tied down what was loose where he could. Like the deceased and mutilated Sakai, he was not a great horseman, though the gods alone knew how many thousands of leagues he had ridden on the back of a horse over the centuries. The only thing he liked about them was that he knew they would save a lot of time wherever they were going and give his feet a rest while he built up callouses on his ass. Settling into the saddle, he waited for the sword maker.
Muramasa shook his head as he looked at the remains of Sakai. It was a shame; the fine robes of silk were so cut up and bloody. They had been of great value. Just the outer robe was worth enough to feed a peasant family for two years.
With a sigh of regret, Muramasa swung up into the saddle of Sakai's animal. As for the clothes, as always he had taken the best. Once he had looked closely at Casca to see if this had caused the barbarian any concern. Obviously it had not, or perhaps he was just not able to read the face of this strange
. To his eyes, they all looked very much alike – ugly. Turning his animal's head back the way they had come, Muramasa led them back up the trail into the mountains. Now that they had killed Sakai and his vassals, there would sooner or later be a hue and cry for them. The farther away they were by then the better. If they could make it to where one of the supporters of Yoritomo was in power, then they would have a chance.
The swords they brought with them of the dead vassals of the Taira and their master would be their passports to honor and employment in the forces of the Minamoto
– which would bring Muramasa that much closer to his heart's desire. He would be samurai. Perhaps even one day he would be
, a great land owner with many
of rice granted to him each year by Lord Yoritomo. It was good to have dreams, for what was one without them? And then when he had the right to the
, he would complete what he had begun at the spring of his fathers. When he had forged Well Drinker, he had not made a companion blade, for the temptation to carry it as
would then have been too much.
When he was truly samurai, then he would forge the little brother to Well Drinker. The thought chilled him that the companion to Well Drinker might also have the same powers. He shook the thought away from him as a dog threw water from its pelt. No! That could not happen. It would be impossible for the elements to be brought together again in the same manner.
It was dark by the time they had reached the spot where earlier in the day Muramasa had made up his mind to go down into the lowlands. He didn't have to try and explain to Casca the reason for his change of mind. Both men felt more secure, if not as warm, with the choice of paths. Muramasa led the way through groves of elm and pine, often dismounting to rest his horse as well as his own buttocks. He took them on narrow tree shrouded paths that grew darker by the moment as the sun goddess, Ameratsu, sank into the burning sea.
When at last total darkness forced them to call a halt to their travel, it was with relief that both men gathered soft ferns with which to make their beds for the night around a small sheltered campfire.
Casca was tired and knew that Muramasa had to be emotionally drained, though he made no complaint nor showed any overt sign of it. But Casca knew by the small lines at the corners of his eyes and the way the mouth and shoulders set that the man was exhausted. Shaking his head in confusion, he knew only one thing for certain, that life around Muramasa was always very exciting. In the short time he had known him, they had killed seven men. He had the uneasy feeling that that was just the introduction to whatever play Muramasa had in mind.
Muramasa was indeed tired, but he could make no complaint, nor show any sign of weakness. That was not permitted. Leaning on his elbow, he glanced at the barbarian Casca. What did he think of the events of the past weeks? The scarred man was not unlike himself in many ways. He never
complained and was certainly a fierce fighter, though his style was a bit crude and in need of refinement. All he had been able to find out was that he had come from far away and was not a member of the tribe of pale red creatures who lived north in the farthermost part of Honshu and Hokkaido, the people called the Ainu.
What could he tell this
that might make him understand of the terrible hunger within his soul to be samurai. To wear the
in his own right, to have sons after him who would be samurai. How could this large gray eyed animal know that in these sacred islands of the gods only the samurai were human? Yet he knew that was not right. He felt, he hungered, and he had pride, but he was not samurai. And now he had this other
– or was it
– an evil spirit, riding him. Well Drinker, what had he done to deserve such a karma? To be burdened with a large ugly barbarian and a cursed sword.
It was too much for him. He would find a shrine and speak to the wise men there. Until then all was in the hands of the gods, all homage to Amida Bhudda.
At dawn they fed from the rations the vassals of Sakai had carried with them, sticky rice with pieces of dried, smoked fish and strands of gray yellow seaweed for flavoring.
Muramasa smacked his lips over the meal. Casca wanted to kill something and get a piece of meat down his gut. He had never understood how a people, those of Chin included, could be so warlike on a vegetable diet. He needed some red meat or at least some fowl of one kind or another. After what he thought was a meager breakfast, with little if any flavor, they saddled back up and headed out on the mountain trail. The day was crisp with the high morning mist that rested on the tops of the mountains, then slid down into the valleys and lowlands before being burned off by the new sun.
The trail narrowed even more as they passed over one mountain range, then another. At clearings along the way, Muramasa would halt and point off into the distance at a village or castle, telling Casca who controlled it. Then he would tell him who was
of the lands they were crossing, which Muramasa explained meant great landowner. So far none of the names had brought anything to Muramasa's lips except anger.
It looked as if the Taira were the bosses of most of this area. Casca wondered when they would reach the first stronghold where Yoritomo Minamoto had followers. He hoped it would be soon. Several times Muramasa tried to explain to him the relationships between the great wa
rring families and their god-king who lived in a great palace in the city of Heian-Kyo, somewhere near a mountain called Hiei. None of it made any sense to Casca, but he listened intently, each time picking up another word or two. One day what Muramasa was telling him might be of value.
When at last they came off the mountains and into the lowlands once more, he could see they were at a narrow strait separating the island they were on from another. Here it grew more crowded as they passed through village after village. There was no way to avoid them. All the surrounding land was used in farming the fields of rice. If they had gotten off the road, they would have had to trek through miles of soggy, stinking rice paddies. As usual, Casca drew the most attention, not only because of his size and coloring, but because of the robes he was wearing, ones he'd taken from one of the slain samurai of Lord Sakai Taira. They were the Taira colors but he certainly did not have the look of the samurai of the lands of the Sun Goddess.
Casca was as curious as they were. Several times he saw women moving daintily along the streets, their feet clad in white
resting on wooden sandals with two high ridges on the bottoms to keep the wearer's feet from the dirt and mud. These women had faces covered in masks of thick white powder and the most elaborate hairstyles he'd ever seen. Their robes were costly and of many colors, one color overlaying the other in eye pleasing patterns as the women minced and bowed their way along the streets, hiding their faces behind gaily painted fans. Several of them eyed Muramasa with obvious speculation since he was well dressed and riding a fine horse. As to the barbarian behind him, he hardly entered their thoughts, and if he did, it was no more than idle speculation of how unpleasant it must be to pillow with one so large and so ugly.
They let their animals do the hard work and push their way through the throngs. Fishermen from the sea were hawking their early morning catch, conical straw hats and capes over weathered shoulders and bent backs. Street stalls with pots of steaming noodles and vegetables were everywhere. Casca's mouth watered when he saw a cage filled with pigeons, but Muramasa had his mind on something else: getting across the Straits of Shimonoseki to the island of Honshu where he could find supporters of Lord Yoritomo.
Only there could they find sanctuary. Every second spent on Kyushu was a second of danger where they might be questioned. If that happened and the packs on their animals were inspected, they were surely doomed to a most unpleasant death. For in their packs were the swords and accoutrements of the Taira samurai they had killed.
As they neared the waterfront, Muramasa stopped and spoke briefly to a fisherman who refused to look directly up at the face of the horseman as he spoke in a quick, frightened burst. He pointed with a black-nailed, calloused finger down a cobblestone alleyway running between houses of bamboo set off the ground. Between them were strung lines on which all types of fish were hung out to dry in the sun. Aromatic!
At the end of the street, they found themselves at the edge of the sea. The tide was just beginning to turn. Resting in slimy, fish head littered mud was a flat bottomed boat with one mast. Casca figured that Muramasa was going to hire the boat, not wishing to take one of the others that regularly carried passengers and cargo to Honshu. He obviously wanted to avoid contact with any of Taira's men.