Authors: Barry Sadler
Eyes watched the
by the shrine several times during the night, though not the eyes of bandits or samurai of the Taira. They were the eyes of Yoshiko no Hirimoto. She slept as a warrior did. Every sound, no matter how slight, was instantly registered. When one was not identified by the subconscious, her eyes would instantly snap open as her hand tightened on the handle of the
. When she did wake, there were always doubts about her fortune to nag her. Was she lucky to be in the company of two such as these? They did look disreputable and the big barbarian was frightening in the extreme by his very difference.
But they had killed the
Taira, that was not in doubt. And what would her chances be to reach Kamakura without them? There were still many days to go, and her chances of making it without an escort were very slim indeed. She had to make it. Much depended on her reaching Kamakura. From there her message could be sent directly and safely to Yoritomo.
, it would be good when she could put down the weight of her responsibility. For now only she was free and able to bring Yoritomo the information that the Kwanto was his when he was ready to move against the Taira. The passes leading to and from the eight provinces would be controlled by those who would rally to him once he was in position to threaten and take Heian Kyo – if he made it that far. First he would have many battles to fight and win before he advanced to the Kwanto. But if he did, then he would not be resisted and the passes to the city of the Emperor would be open to him, as well as having at least three of the most powerful barons of the Kwanto throw their forces in with his.
If she did not manage to get the message to Yoritomo, then who could say what alignments might occur if he did not move rapidly enough to secure the fealty of the lords of the Kwanto now that it was proffered. If he hesitated, they could change their minds, and the passes would be closed to him. He might, it was true, go around or come in from the south. But to do so would cost him more men than he could comfortably spare.
There were at this time no alternatives. She had to concentrate on one day at a time. The farther north they went, the safer they were. Here in Suo Province they were in constant danger. The spies and scouts of Taira would be looking for her on all roads and paths. They knew she carried a message of great import that could change the course of the war. Just what it was, they did not know and would without the slightest hesitation kill thousands if need be to find out. That was all the torturers of Munemori no Taira, brother to Shigimori, could find out from her mother before she died. That was all she knew. It was a great sadness that her mother had not found the courage to take her own life when the soldiers of Taira came for her. She would have saved herself great pain and not have put her family in jeopardy. Yoshiko hoped that her uncle would be able to have proper funeral rites performed for her spirit so that it might rest.
First light found the small party taking the ridge trail from Suo to Akia, then on to Bitchu where Yoshiko said they might find aid from a relative of her family. That would be welcome news for all. They were running short of everything. Food would be needed soon, and to go into any of the villages was to invite disaster. For Muramasa and Casca were certain that by now the Taira would be after them with a vengeance, and their descriptions, especially Casca's, would surely doom them if he was seen.
To counter this as best he could, Casca took to wearing a scarf tied tightly about his head to conceal his hair and tried as much as possible to keep his features from casual view. He hid them under a wide brimmed straw hat he had picked up when a traveling farmer saw the party approach and ran away rather than meet them, leaving his hat behind.
He and Muramasa each led one of the animals. Returning the better clothes they had taken from the dead to their packs, they tried to look as much like simple porters and servants as they could. Each kept his weapons close to hand, for they both felt that somewhere on the road, if their luck held true, they would have need of them again. Casca did regret having to leave the
behind at their last stop, but there was no way to conceal it among their goods. But they did have their bows if they had time to get them out and in use.
Wishing they were able, even for a short time, to visit some of the cities they passed on the way, Casca reconciled himself to trying to remain as anonymous as possible. It wasn't easy. He was much larger and broader than most of the native population and would stand out in any crowd. He had heard the people of Chin refer to the inhabitants of these islands as dwarfs. That was not exactly true. There were some they'd met, as he had found among the samurai, who were taller and heavier boned. It was probably diet. As usual, nobles ate much better than the people who grew the food for them.
Their first two days
travel on Honshu were uneventful except for the whining of the maid who saw swords in every shadow. She wished fervently that she had stayed in her home fishing village and had married the old man who had asked her father for her. By now he would be dead and she would be the owner of two fine boats instead of on this terrible journey with these barbarians and savages who might ravish her and her mistress. Tears came to her eyes when she thought of the humiliation, but also a warming to her loins.
Near noon they ran into their first stroke of bad luck
– six men on foot wearing the colors of Taira. Only one was samurai, the others common soldiers with poor weapons and simple breastplates of lacquered wood for armor.
Casca tried to shrink and make himself smaller as he moved closer to the rear of the horse with the maid mounted on it, his hand unobtrusively moving near the concealed handle of his sword among their packs. Muramasa did the same. Acting startled and frightened by the presence of soldiers, he bowed his way to the rear of his horse where
lay in wait.
Casca had a feeling that they might have a remote chance to get away if Muramasa kept the sword in its sheath. Every time he drew the thing, killing started. He wished he knew what it was about the blade that had frightened old Hama
-san and, driven him out of their camp so fast. That there was something, he had no doubt, but Muramasa had not spoken to him of it, and he didn't know how to ask properly.
The samurai in charge of the patrol was a broad shouldered, bow legged man with good, if not expensive, robes. He raised his hand in front of them, calling both the travelers and his soldiers to a halt.
Striding forward a few paces in front of his men, he tried to peer under the broad brimmed tasseled hat of the woman on horseback. His eyes missed nothing. He took his time before addressing her, noting the manner in which she held her body, the carefully tended nails of her hands. Everything about her said this was a lady of quality. He was looking for a lady with another older woman and two men who were fierce fighters. All looked to be such, except the men were not so very dangerous looking to his eyes. They kowtowed and backed away, bowing in subservience as was their due, something no true warrior would do. But the lady was the mystery.
Unless they were on some errand requiring secrecy, they would have traveled the main roads, which were much safer and patrolled by the warriors of Taira who kept the order and drove the bandits into these very hills. That the woman was here was most suspicious. But there could be another answer. He hoped for such. The woman beneath the tasseled hat was very beautiful.
Casca could see the glint of lust in the shave pated samurai's eyes, which was why he hoped once more that wishful thinking would overrule intelligence.
With the automatic contempt his class held for those beneath them, he ignored the two porters, giving them hardly a glance. That they were obviously cowed was normal. No mere serf would dare to raise his eyes to a samurai without permission. These two did everything except urinate down their legs. That he also took as his due, for he was indeed a most fearsome and powerful warrior.
Peasants should be frightened of him. Twice he had performed
in the streets of his city.
This he did not do randomly but waited for one who offended him by his manners or lack of them. Only then did he test the new sword blade on the body of the offender.
"Greeting, lady. I am Jochiku Murakami, captain of guards, and I care for those who travel these trails and roads. May I inquire as to your name and destination?" He bowed politely, keeping his spine straight to show his martial spirit, his attention locked on the dark eyes with such incredibly long lashes that looked at him with certain interest. A chill of iced fire raced down from his stomach into his loins. It had been long since he had pillowed with a lady of quality, especially one with such bold eyes.
It was obvious that he impressed her greatly by the manner in which she moved her head so that the nape of her long graceful neck was best exposed to, his view when she returned his bow from her saddle. His pulse raced as he came closer to her sword hand touching the reins of her horse. His soldiers stayed back. They would not come closer until they were bidden. He had always insisted on great discipline among his lessers. All should know their place in the structure of life at all times.
He was prepared to make the gentle opening moves of offering his protection for part of her journey when the spell of her eyes was broken by a hysterical sob from the maid. The tension was too much for her. Her bowels let loose as the samurai neared her lady. She couldn't control herself. A wail started from deep inside and broke out of her open mouth, startling the jays in the tops of the pine trees.
Before Casca or Muramasa could draw their swords from out of the pack, Yoshiko had already drawn her dagger and plunged the chiseled point straight into the officer's right eye. The razor sharp tip cut easily through the bone in the occipital orb to reach the softer brain tissue behind. Jochiku Murakami's jerking head nearly twisted the knife out of her hand as he died.
out first and was rushing toward the startled soldiers when Casca came up close behind him. Yoshiko turned her horse off the trail to give them fighting room.
The common soldiers of Jochiku did not share the samurai view of noble death. Without him to lash them on, they had little taste for combat. Most of their efforts were in trying to get enough room to get away and run for help.
Muramasa took two of them, slicing the hardwood haft of one's
in twain with the same stroke that took the rest of his arm off at the shoulder. Then, whipping around, he dodged under a half-hearted thrust of a second soldier and sank
deep into the man's armpit. Twisting the hungry blade to free it, he was going for the next one when Casca caught up to him in time to block a sideways slice of one of the long spears. Blocking the thrust with his sword, he stepped close inside to where the spear was nearly useless. Keeping the pressure on the haft of the spear, he smashed the man in the groin with a full swing of his knee and cut his throat as he fell to the earth, holding his crotch with anguished hands.
The other two took off with Muramasa in hot pursuit. He called back to Casca to remain with the women and guard them until he returned, then disappeared through a cluster of pines as he went after the soldiers. Casca did as he was
bade and turned to go back to Yoshiko and the maid. Stopping in his tracks, he saw the maid lying on the side of the trail, her throat cut. Looking around quickly for the enemy they had missed, it took him a second to see the knife in Yoshiko's dainty hand. She had cut the throat of her maid.
Seeing Casca's distress, Yoshiko bowed her head in deep sorrow.
Ah so desu,
Casca-san. There are many sad duties in life. This has been one of them. I have known Tamiko-chan," she said with the term of endearment, "for many years. However she was a danger to us all and I could not permit the risk of her losing control again. It was most regrettable but most necessary. I am so sorry." A tear gathered at the corner of her eye that she gracefully took away with the tip of a flowered kerchief.
Casca felt a lump in his throat. He was right. The women of these islands were very dangerous butterflies.
It was nearly half an hour before Muramasa returned, bearing a grisly package of two human heads. He held them by the hair with one hand and
clean and shining in the other.
"I brought these back so you would not fear that they had escaped to spread the word of our presence."
It was then he noticed the dead maid, in the bushes off to the side of the road where Casca had dragged her with the other corpses. He planned to move them to where they'd be out of sight and smell for a time.
Casca pointed to Yoshiko in response to Muramasa's unasked question. Grunting, Muramasa nodded his head in approval. "It is well. She will trouble us no further. If the
of Taira are looking for a young woman with two males and one female companion, it will be that much better for us."
Bowing his head respectfully to Yoshiko, he acknowledged the courage of her act and the difficulty in performing it. She had gained much respect in his eyes. She was what a woman should be. She was samurai.
The best of her kind.
He helped Casca drag the bodies farther into the woods and cover them with stones and rubble. It would not be long before someone discovered them, but by then they would be far away. Time was what they needed
most, perhaps this would buy them a little more.
Yoshiko joined them as the last of the stones were piled over the dead. She joined Muramasa in saying prayers for the spirits, asking their forgiveness for taking them from this life in order to appease their spirits. It was always wise to do this when time permitted. In violent times such as these, this was done very seldom.
They encountered no more difficulties. Eventually they had to leave the mountain trails and take the more traveled roads leading to Bitchu where they would find, they hoped, the aid that Yoshiko had spoken of.
The temptation to stay at an inn for wayfarers was great but had to be avoided. Instead, they slept under the stars, thankful that the rains had not come.
Several times on their journey, Muramasa had tried to prod Yoshiko into telling him the real purpose of her journey. This was naturally to no avail. She deftly dodged each question and each time turned the game around to him so he was telling her about himself. Then he would forget about his questions for a few minutes until it was too late to pursue them gracefully.
The only one not totally dejected by the descent into the coastal lands was Casca. He kept his attention occupied by observing the people of the islands of the gods. There was a most strange caste system here. Everyone a grade higher had the power of death over those beneath him. One merely had to say the word and the person was immediately killed, or if he was samurai, he had to cut his own belly open in a ritual suicide called seppuku. There were safety factors built into the system, though naturally they were heavily weighted in favor of the noble classes. If a man ordered too many deaths, he could possibly offend his lord, who might then command him to commit seppuku.
That was only one of their strange customs. The other more important one was the universal adoration of their emperor as the living descendent of the gods. Yet he had no actual power. To deal in earthly matters was to degrade
himself. Instead, he had counselors and advisors who took over the common chores of administering his empire.
In reality, the emperor was more a captive than anything else, though several, such as the retired Emperor Go
-shirikawa, retired before an untimely death claimed them. As retired emperors, they held great prestige and were free from their lofty godlike positions and could, without loss of face, meddle in human affairs. This combined with the Nihonjin samurai code called
– the way of the warrior, which exalted noble death above all else made for those in power a formidable force with which to enforce their will.
Casca had the scandalous thought that just maybe the ones who ran the country and fought over control of the emperor did not have quite the same reverence for their god king as the common man and samurai did. To them, he was only an instrument by which power could be obtained and the population controlled.
That was what was occurring now. Yoritomo Minamoto, head of the clan by the same name, had once been the power in the land until overthrown by the Taira. Now the clan was coming back. And as the basis by which to rally forces to them, they had the retired Emperor Go-shirikawa who was in their power. Through him, they made the claim that the boy Emperor Antoku was in actuality being held captive by the heretic lords of the Taira. This was reinforced by Go-shirikawa who acknowledged that that was the case and called for a general uprising against the Taira.
To that effect, the country was in a state of civil war with the barons and great landowners choosing sides or straddling the fence while paying lip service until they could see which way the wind would blow.
Many of them were disillusioned by the rule of the Taira who kept their family members in all positions of great influence and ignored their allies who helped them in their rise to power.
The Taira were arrogant and cruel. They came from an uncultured tribe who, by good fortune, cunning, and incredible cruelty, rose to power. Now they were even marrying their daughters into the royal line to further secure their claims of control over the emperor.
Other factors included several cults, which were even more confusing to Casca, of so called warrior monks who did not hesitate to wage war on the samurai or competing cults. They even had occasionally attacked the capital of Heian-Kyo when their wishes or demands were not met by whomever controlled the emperor at that time. These monks were said to be every bit as vicious as samurai without having to deal with the samurai version of morality, which made them very sneaky bastards and very difficult to deal with.
Assassins, warrior monks, religious cults, private armies, warlords and god kings.
This country had it all. Casca wondered if they would ever get together with so many different factors pulling them apart. If they did, they would be hell on wheels and very hard to stop, for their energy and concentration were incredible. Once they decided on something, there was no stopping them short of death.
Trying to put it all into some kind of order made Casca's head swim, so he took the easy way out and just accepted whatever it was until he found out differently. Even though for Casca this was all very confusing. It seemed to make sense to everyone else around him so he didn't ask any embarrassing questions. He didn't even know which questions they might find embarrassing. Therefore, he just kept his mouth shut and listened when Muramasa and Yoshiko spoke of the world as they knew it.
The most he could make out of it was that now was the critical time for the Minamoto clan. If they were ever to reclaim their power, they would have to do it now. There would be no second chance. If they failed, they would be exterminated to the last of their line. This had almost happened once before, but the Taira overlord had fallen in love with a Minamoto woman and permitted her son to live. It was from this act that the Minamoto had resurrected their power and now threatened the Taira.
Though he'd had no say in the matter, it looked as if Casca were aligned with the Minamoto whether he liked it or not. Ever since the first day when Muramasa had found him on the beach, his course had been determined.
Now he would have to go with the sword maker and the strange, beautiful Lady Yoshiko, who could kill with such dispatch, to see what the future held. He had no doubt that it would be extremely violent, for that seemed to be the final argument for everything in this land of shining swords and cherry blossom women. Beauty and death walked hand in hand, touching everything about them equally, at least until the end, when death always reigned supreme. Even then they tried to make that into something of beauty with ritual and ceremony.
This night they found sanctuary beside the gardens of a monastery where saffron robed monks with shaved, oiled heads tolled huge bronze bells by striking them with tree logs hung from ropes.
Their presence was ignored, but Casca did see that several of the monks carried very workmanlike swords and spears with them. And the monastery had walls which were guarded at night by armed men. He shook his head. Over the years he'd found that when religion takes up arms, the world is in a lot of shit. There should always be a law separating them. He was in the midst of this contemplation when Yoshiko came to stand beside him as he watched the walls.
"Do I disturb your thoughts,
If so, I shall retire and leave you to your solitude."
-san; you do not disturb me. I was merely speculating on life."
She moved closer. The scent of jasmine was in her hair, which she had let down to fall nearly to the back of her knees in midnight clouds.
Ah so desu
. It is good to think of life. This sad land of mine is filled with too much death."
He thought that strange coming from a whisp of a girl who could drive a chisel tipped knife into the eye socket of a man, then less than five minutes later cut the throat of her maid.
Sensing his distress, she bowed her head in the moonlight. "I know that you are very disturbed over what happened in the mountains, Casca-san. I shall try to explain as best I can, for it is not easy to understand, even for one such as I who have been raised in these beliefs. So please do me the kindness of listening to me." She paused to await his answer.
When none came she took it for acceptance. It was true that over the last days she had noticed a difference in his attitude toward her, not hostility, but something else, which bothered her. She told herself she needed this
with his strong arms to help her reach Kamakura. She could not let him alienate himself from her at this critical stage of their journey.
"Very well then, Casca
-san. I do not ask you to feel as I and my kind do. But if you are to survive in these lands, you must know certain things. We are samurai, men and women, and for us there is no greater duty than honor and service to our family and liege lords. Only the emperor is above them, and he is too far away for us to touch, and we will not even attempt to bother him with our petty problems. He is a god; without him, there would be no Sun Rise Empire. He is the weaver's thread that holds the fabric of our culture together. Whether he is truly a god does not matter. He is the symbol of everything for us. He represents all our hopes. Without him, we lose our dreams and the things which make us know we are a special people."
Casca interrupted her a bit tersely. He'd known others who'd claimed to be gods before. As a rule they stunk to the high heavens. "What of the killing, Yoshiko
"Ah yes, Casca
-san. That is the most terrible part. For it is sad to see a life cut down before it can blossom fully into true enlightenment. But in death we find solace. When one loses the fear of death, one is more open and honest with oneself. Fear leaves and the soul is free to find its true karma. And this loss of fear can only be possible when one has devotion to the gods and honor. Without this, the fear of death returns and makes of us a small people in heart and soul. For me to take the life of my maid was, as I said, and I said truly, a most terrible thing. But my duty comes first even before myself. I would not hesitate to take my life as quickly as I did hers. And there is this. She lived long years always in fear of the inevitable. Now her fears are gone. She will come again into this world reborn. I hope as a stronger person, for she was good of heart."
She paused, took a breath, and then sighed, looking at the walls of the ancient monastery looming above them in the night shadows.
"I do hope you understand us better, Casca-san. Duty is that which binds us together. Without it, we would fall apart."
Yoshiko turned from him, gave a graceful bow, and faded back into the darkness leaving him with, "Duty, Casca
-san. You will have yours to do also. And you will know it when it comes to you.
, Casca san."