Authors: Barry Sadler
The ritual haggling did not take very long. The look in Muramasa's eyes when he touched the hilt of
made the bargemen come to a rapid agreement. Laying down weathered, half soaked planks, he led their horses aboard the flat bottomed boat, explaining with much bowing and scraping that it would be half an hour before the tide was in enough to float the contraption off the mud banks. Muramasa puffed out his cheeks at the delay as if it were the personal fault of the bargeman that the tide wasn't ready at the same time he was.
Casca noticed the anxious look in Muramasa's eyes as he kept glancing to the shore and the alleyway leading to their water logged barge.
was very concerned. He had no doubt that word of the two strangers' entry into the city would be rapidly passed to the
, constables, samurai police of the Taira. Every breath he took might be bringing him closer to death. Death he did not mind. It was natural, expected. But to die before achieving his goals that was a thought which was unbearable. Even with
in his hand, one could only resist so many opponents before he had to fall.
The incoming tide lapped slowly, sluggishly, brown and filthy against the unpainted, weathered sides of the barge. Inch by dragging inch it slowly applied lift against the soaked hull. Whistling under his breath to attract Muramasa's attention, Casca pointed down the alleyway. Coming to stand beside him hand on hilt, Muramasa
squinted his eyes to see better in the reflected glare of the sunlight on the murky waters.
Two women were approaching them. One wore a wide brimmed hat with black woven strands of cotton hanging down to conceal much of her features and protect her face from the rays of the sun. The other was obviously of the servant class and trotted behind her mistress carrying two large bundles, one on her back and the other under a fleshy arm. She was of no interest, being short, plain and very fat. But the other was of definite interest. As Muramasa had often stated, he was cursed with great curiosity. She moved with rapid yet dainty steps that bespoke a lady of quality or perhaps a woman of the Willow World, such as they had passed earlier in the streets.
Casca stood back as Muramasa advanced to the plank walkway to greet the woman and her companion as they stopped at the water's edge and waited.
Muramasa didn't feel very sure of himself when dealing with ladies of quality. Men were something different. Highborn or low, the
was the final judge when you met one on one. But with a woman, who knew what the contest really was? "You wish something, mistress?"
The woman's voice was not low or high. It stayed in the middle range but was very melodic. She bowed, her face still hidden for the most part by the hanging strands of black cotton dangling from her wide brimmed straw hat.
"Indeed, honorable sir. I wish to join you and your associate and cross to the mainland. Is it possible that you would grant a desperate and defenseless woman and her companion the honor of accompanying you?" She bowed deeper. Her form was graceful, studied, as was the manner of her speech. It was not the voice of a woman of rural origins. She used phraseology and accents of the highborn. But of which family?
Before he had an opportunity to reply, Casca whistled at him again, this time more loudly and with a feeling of urgency to the pitch. Coming down the alley, two abreast, were four mounted horsemen. Behind them came six men on foot, all wearing the
. They were samurai, most probably
, police of the local Taira
The woman heard the muffled clatter of the horses' hooves as they trampled through the muddy street. Instantly her body took on the signals of fear. Muramasa made his mind up. It made no difference if the horsemen were coming after the woman or not. If they were, then they would still be certain to question him and Casca. Therefore, it was quite simple to make his decision.
"Of course. But if you wish to come aboard, may I suggest that you do so quickly." He glanced at the water level. Only an inch or two more to go and they should be able to float free. As the
neared them, Muramasa ordered the bargeman to make ready with his long pole to push them out. He started to call out an order to Casca, then saw the barbarian was already prepared, having taken one of the Mongol style bows from its case. He had already notched a shaft and was waiting. Muramasa grunted under his breath. From the manner in which the long nose held the bow, it was obvious he knew something about its use. Perhaps he was not going to be such a burden after all.
The women hurried aboard, moving to the rear of the barge behind the horses. The bargeman looked as if he wished to abandon ship, but the big barbarian with the scarred face indicated with his bow that if he made such a move, the first shaft would be for him. He had no choice but to stay and do as he was ordered by these, what he now believed to be, outlaw
Knowing they had no other options and seeing that it would be incredibly foolish to let the advancing
get any nearer, Muramasa nodded at Casca and waited to observe the quality of the barbarian's marksmanship. Casca raised the bow, holding the string by an ivory thumbgrip next to his ear. Then he extended the powerful laminated bow forward with his left hand, bringing it down from above his head to eye level in one smooth motion as he completed the draw. Then the arrow was released, leaving the string of the bow humming. The first shaft hit its mark, the leading horse, in the chest. The shaft penetrated into the lungs. The beast screamed like a wounded woman and fell to its forelegs, kicking and screaming as its mouth filled with blood. The rider went over its head to crash in the alley and lay motionless. With any luck, he broke his neck.
The next shaft was in the air before the first rider touched the earth. This one struck the second rider in the chest, penetrating his lacquered armor in the style of
, a shining black human chest. The arrow was driven with enough force that the barbed point protruded out his back. He fell over his horse's neck, trying to hold on as his lungs filled with blood. His horse ran into the flailing legs of the leading animal who screamed and writhed on the earth in its death spasms. Its hind legs kicked out and knocked the second horse down.
Behind them, the samurai on foot paused in confusion. They wanted to attack, but the horses in front of them were screaming and kicking so much that none wished to venture near and risk a broken limb.
Muramasa admired the barbarian's logic in the selection of his targets. Quite good. Pushing the gangway free with his foot, he drew Well Drinker and waited. Not looking back, he barked harshly at the bargeman, "If this thing does not move soon, you are going to die. For if we do not kill you," he pointed at the samurai who had finally found their way around the kicking and dying horses, "then they will!"
The bargeman found new strength in his ancient frame as he dug the pole deeper into the mud, his tendons stretched to the breaking point in his neck and back as he shoved against the sucking slime. He thought he felt the barge give an inch or two and pushed harder until he thought his heart was going to burst.
Casca let loose three more arrows, only one of which struck its mark as the on rushing samurai were dodging and weaving. But he did have the satisfaction of hearing one scream as the man went down with a shaft of the leaf pattern stuck deep in his leg, the tip just touching the deep artery in the thigh. The samurai didn't know it, but the first time he got up and tried to move or pull the shaft out, he would bleed to death.
Slowly the barge began to inch out into the slimy water. Muramasa studiously ignored the women who had taken cover behind the horses, but he did not fail to notice that the lady in the hat had a
, a chisel edged knife, in her delicate hand and stood ready.
was beginning to hum in his hand, sending the now familiar, and at the same time welcome and dreaded, vibrations up his arm at the prospect of blood.
did not hesitate when they reached the edge of the water. They leaped in full stride to reach the decks of the slowly retreating barge.
hummed in the air, catching one of the samurai with a
, a crosswise cut, while he was still in the air. The effect was quite interesting for Muramasa as he had never seen the cut made in that fashion before. It sliced the man from the left lower hip to his right clavical, splitting him open. His body collapsed in mid-air as though the spring in his leap was suddenly removed. He fell half on the deck.
The other two made the crossing. Casca met one with his sword, blocking the man's first cut in an arm jarring counter. His opponent's blade flashed in front of his face, nearly giving him a mate to the scar he already wore.
By all the gods of hades! These small bastards are fast
, he thought.
Knowing the man was quicker than he was, he did the only logical thing
– something illogical. He threw his weapon straight at the samurai's grinning face. Instinctively, the man had to duck, blink, and block all at the same time. When his eyes opened, Casca had his sword wrist in one hand and his other arm around his back, twisting both. The samurai's arm came loose, first at the shoulder as the sockets separated. Releasing his grip on the now useless and empty sword arm, Casca transferred his grip to the man's head. Grasping the samurai's topknot in his hand, he held the body rigid as he twisted, turning the man's head to an impossible angle. It gave way. The neck cracked at the sixth vertebra. Casca let the body slide over the side. His man was done. Picking up his
where it had fallen to the deck after being blocked by a frantic wave of the dead samurai's sword, he turned to see if Muramasa needed any help. He saw he was wasting his concern. The last samurai was half kneeling, his head split open to the chest, the two halves pulling apart with a distinct sucking sound. Then
rose and fell again, completing the halving process. Muramasa cut the man in two parts from head to groin.
Muramasa groaned in pleasure. The feel of the cut was so... so perfect. The feeling of the steel slicing through flesh and bone was not to be equaled by any other sensation. Raising the bloody steel above his head, he marveled at the beauty of the contrasting colors of the watered steel blending in a thousand different shades with the blood as the light of the sun reflected off the blade. It was glorious. Each time he drew
to fight, it was
, the exalted "Hour of the Death Fury," when nothing can touch you save death, and that has no importance.
Ikaga desu ka?
" Casca asked, careful to keep his distance from Muramasa while he held
. He didn't know just what it was, but when Muramasa had the sword in his hand and had killed, there was something different about him and it wasn't good.
Carefully wiping the blood from Well Drinker.
with a silk scarf, Muramasa replied quite pleasantly, amused at Casca's use of his few words in the human tongue. "I am quite well,
A movement in the rear of the barge caught his eye. He had forgotten about the women. The woman in the hat placed her
back in her robes and bowed gracefully to him. Her servant was in a near state of shock, as was the bargeman.
To the bargeman, Muramasa barked roughly, "Get us out of here and raise the sail. I do not wish to spend any more time on this unclean device than is necessary."
The bargeman made no verbal response, but if he had, he would have replied in the same manner that he wanted them off his boat as fast as possible. He was not certain in his mind that he was not going to lose his head anyway, for the samurai of Taira had been killed on his property. Miserable, he railed at his misfortune and did as he was ordered. Raising his single tattered sail of rattan, he made for the Straits of Shimonoseki and the main island of Honshu, where, if Amida Bhudda was kind, he would put off these people with their swords and never see them again.
The Lady Yoshiko no Hirimoto bowed to the
with sincere respect. Although she was samurai, never had she seen sword dance such as she had just witnessed. The man might not be of her class, but he was without a doubt a warrior to be reckoned with. And there was his strange companion who had killed the samurai by snapping his neck as if it were no more than a rotten twig. Such strength, though certainly there was a certain lack of finesse to his technique.
Her maid began to whimper. Quickly she corrected her. "Quiet, remember who you serve! We are samurai. Never let common people see you with weakness!"
Yoshiko was absolutely sincere. If the
had not been able to dispose of the
, she would have killed herself before permitting them to take her captive. She could not let her life be used to threaten her family. Her delicate, well groomed manner covered a heart as fierce as any of her family. Samurai women had their duty also, even to the death.
Perhaps these men might be of service to her, for she had far
to go and alone it would be difficult. Even more important, they had horses.
As the gray eyed big man was obviously a barbarian, she felt, no need to address herself to him.
"May I ask as to the name of our rescuer and most humbly apologize for being the instrument by which you have become involved with our problems?" She removed her hat.
Casca felt his chest clench. Her face was bare of the white powder of the women he had seen earlier. Her complexion was very pale gold with roses and milk for accent. Her hair was set high on her head, bundled loosely under her straw hat. She was without question one of the most beautiful and exotic women he had ever seen in all his years of wandering.
Muramasa felt his face flush with awkward emotion. This was the first time in his life that a highborn had ever spoken to him as if he were a true man and not just another peasant soldier to be thrown away like so much chaff before the winnowing winds of war.
Trying to affect the more refined speech of the nobles he answered stiffly, "I am Jinto Muramasa, my lady. May I inquire as to your name?" He bowed deeply with respect.
Gracefully she responded in kind, inclining her head delicately, showing the nape of her neck to be as long and graceful as the swans that swam in the lily ponds of the Emperor's palace at Heian Kyo. "With pleasure, good sir. And may I say that your name, War Sword, is most apt." She knew now that he had killed samurai of the Taira, he could not betray her to them without losing his own head. She said demurely, "I am Yoshiko no Hirimoto."
He hissed between his teeth. So that was it. Her father, Oe no Hirimoto, was known to be a noble and an important advisor to the Minamoto. If she could be taken hostage, it would be very difficult for her family, even if she was never ransomed or set free. The
were after her.
Casca coughed politely. He didn't know what was going on, but he didn't want to be left out of this. Let Muramasa take his pick of horses and clothes, but this was something different.
Muramasa frowned at his companion's ill manner, but he felt he did owe him at least an introduction to a great lady of a noble house. It would further his education greatly. Bowing again, he asked, "If it would not offend you, Yoshiko no Hirimoto-san, I would like to present my traveling companion. He is a most curious man, but as you have just witnessed, sometimes a most useful person."
She smiled at the big pale man as she would one of her father's pet dogs. She had never seen anything like him. He was so ugly that he was almost attractive in a perverted way. Her face flushed at such an indelicate thought.
"Is he an Ainu?"
"No, my lady, he is from somewhere else, very far away. That is all I have been able to find out about him. He comes from beyond the lands of the great Khan. He is called Casca
Casca bowed at the mention of his name, but he never took his eyes off the woman called Yoshiko. Politely, but not too politely as she remembered her position, she said, "
Domo arigato gozai mashte
. I thank you Casca-san for your aid this day." Looking at Muramasa, she continued, "I assure you that my family will be most appreciative of your valuable services to them this day and in the days to come."
Muramasa knew she was sucking him in and didn't mind it. His karma was good this day. She was the daughter of Oe no Hirimoto, a most important supporter of Yoritomo Minamoto in their struggle with the Taira.
Most important. This
, woman, could be their admission to the highborn Minamotos, where they would be noticed and rewarded for their services to her. Ahh yes. He was most pleased for the opportunity to render this lady his services. For now it would be best if they said nothing of their own problems with the Taira.
Ah so desu
, Yoshiko-san. I feel the gods have brought us together so that I may be of service to you. For I have long served the cause of the Minamoto against the tyrant Taira. It will be a great honor for such poor men as we to be of service to the daughter of Oe no Hirimoto. We," he indicated Casca, "will see to you and your servant's safety to the extent of our lives."
Casca didn't have the faintest idea of what Muramasa was getting them into and wouldn't have argued about it anyway. As was their now normal practice, they stripped the bodies naked and pushed them over the side, after taking what they wished and stuffing it into their packs. The women did not seem to be the least bit embarrassed at the sight of naked dead men. A tough race!
Even the flowers
, Casca thought,
The crossing was an easy one. The bargeman tacked back and forth with practiced skills from his long years of making this crossing every day, the weather permitting. It was two hours before nightfall when they made land on the island of Honshu. In the event that word of their flight from Kyushu had been sent by carrier pigeon or some other means, Muramasa had the bargeman maneuver them a bit to the east where they would not have to go through any villages immediately.
Leading the horses ashore, they gave up their seats to the women, knowing they would make better time. Yoshiko rode well, although her maid tended to wobble a bit even when the horse was standing still. Muramasa took the reins of Yoshiko's borrowed horse and called back to Casca, "
, we must hurry!" Then he took off without another look back.
The bargeman looked at the three silver coins in his hand with relief. He had been certain that he would not live to see another day brought to glory by the sacred light of Ameratsu. Perhaps his karma would carry him through the next days in safety, especially if he did not push it too much and stayed out of sight for a month or two. That thought did not displease him greatly. His wife was famous for having a sharp and unforgiving tongue.
Muramasa led the way, taking them along several different winding trails but always leading them to the north. It was four hours after landing when Lady Yoshiko finally pleaded with him, "
Dozo ga matsu
Muramasa was glad that she had called for a halt first. He was growing weary, but it would have been unseemly for him to admit it without losing face in front of the lady and the barbarian. One must always set the example as well as the pace.
That night they pulled off the trail to take shelter in a glen surrounded by high willows. Beside the tallest willow rested a small stone shrine spotted with greenish white lichens with signs of recent offerings on the small pedestal at its base. All but Casca bowed respectfully when they first neared the shrine. But then they paid no further attention to it.
He and Muramasa took turns on guard, letting the women catch their sleep. They would probably have need of it in the coming days. He and Muramasa talked for a few moments, Casca adding to his list of words and phrases while Muramasa shook his head in disbelief at the half understood tales Casca told him of the outside world. He told him of the great cities of the Genghis, of Rome and the legions, Byzantium and Sarmatia, and Persia and the Vandals. It was too much for Muramasa to believe that anywhere in the world there could be a greater or richer city than that of the Son of Heaven, who, though just a boy of eight years, was still by divine right a direct descendant from the immortal gods. Ahhh, surely, this long nosed ugly one was a great storyteller and was simply trying to be amusing in his clumsy fashion.
Through the night, they took their turns, letting the coals of the fire die down after they had eaten. There was no sense in advertising their presence if it could be avoided. Muramasa took first watch, using the time to set the scale of his life and future in balance. He knew that he had failed in many things, but now he had the chance to succeed. Or did he? Was what to become of him now more in the length of the cold shining steel he called
than himself? Would it one day drink from his blood also?
ll, if it did, then that, too, was his karma. Until then he would play the great game against all who came. It had been a most unusual series of events that had happened to him since he had found the long nosed one on the beach. Perhaps he was a spirit form or possibly he was possessed by one. The scars on his knotted body were enough to give one nightmares. Muramasa was a warrior and knew the meaning of many of those wounds he had seen. The man should have died several times over or at the least have been a pathetic cripple with amputated limbs. Perhaps the gods were keeping him alive to do their bidding and somehow aid Muramasa to realize his ambitions.