Authors: Barry Sadler
It was the eighth day since they'd landed on Honshu that Yoshiko at last pointed into the distance.
"There is the castle of Kujo Yoshimitsu, a kinsman by marriage. It is here that I pray we will find succor and news."
It was with great relief that they started down the trail leading to the castle, which by any standards was impressive. To Casca's practiced eye, it was well laid out with deep moats on three sides and cliffs on the other. At the top of the walls were parapets and protected positions for archers and arbalesters. When they reached a checkpoint two kilometers from the castle, Casca tensed up as did Muramasa. There were at least a hundred fully armed and armored guards.
Yoshiko calmed them with soothing words. "It is well, these are samurai of my kinsman. Though he pays lip service to Taira, he is his own man and rules this province as his own. The Taira would like very much to destroy him, but he has too many friends and relations among the other great families for them to do so with ease. As long as he does not cause trouble, they are content to look the other way and leave him alone."
Kicking her animal ahead of them, she commanded, "Wait. It will be best if I go alone. There are more guards here than when I last came to visit. Perhaps something is amiss. Therefore, I shall go to them first and smooth the passage to my kinsman."
They did as she said but kept close to their weapons in case things had changed more than she thought. Both felt much better when they saw the samurai guards at the checkpoint bow deeply to her and point to the castle. One of them immediately took off at a run, obviously carrying word that the Lady Yoshiko no Hirimoto had arrived.
With an imperious wave of her hand, she signaled for Muramasa and Casca to join her. Still playing the part of simple porters, they advanced with heads lowered, careful not to look in the eyes of the curious guards. Though once they were up close, Casca did as usual attract more than one very curious stare.
Yoshiko cast this off with, "Pay no attention to the ugly one. He is as stupid as he looks, being a great hairy Ainu. However, he is very strong and ofttimes one has need of the service of an ox rather than a nightingale. Especially when intelligence is not required."
The sentries laughed at the small joke and waved them through with an escort of twenty samurai to take her to her kinsman's portal.
As they neared the castle, Casca saw that it had been well prepared for attack. The cobbled road they were on was wide enough for ten horsemen. When they passed the checkpoint, he knew they were under observation every step of the way. After leaving the checkpoint, the road began to narrow as it became flanked on two sides by twenty foot high walls of sheer, polished rock without handgrips, so that the enemy could not climb them for a counterattack. The road had been cut from the native stone, narrowing to where only two horsemen could ride abreast. The others would be bunched up behind them making it impossible to maneuver. This was the length of about fifty meters, a perfect place to ambush and tie up cavalry on the trail from protected positions above.
After they passed through the small gorge, they entered an area where the brush and trees had been cut back, leaving open ground on both sides of the trail, which Casca felt sure was used by archers and spearmen to attack anyone on the road.
Here was another surprise, though not completely. There before them were at least five hundred men wearing colors he had not seen before. A gold dragon on a white standard rose above their camp. All were very alert. At least half of them stood to with weapons at the ready.
He noticed that Yoshiko was becoming somewhat agitated by the increased pulse rate of the vein in her throat. She said nothing. He and Muramasa began to get ready in the event that trouble was going to start, though they would have no chance against these numbers.
He felt tremendous relief when the samurai officer who was obviously in charge of the detachment came forward to greet Yoshiko. He spoke a few rapid, words which Casca couldn't make out, then added twenty more of his men to her escort. They and those of her kinsman, Kujo Yoshimitsu, seemed to get on well enough. There were no signs that Kujo's men resented the presence of the other samurai.
Yoshiko was obviously very excited in spite of her efforts to control herself. Casca wished he knew what was going down, but understood that it would have to wait until they were alone.
The escort of men under the white dragon banner went with them as far as the
, the guardhouse at the castle drawbridge. On either side of the
were two massive corner towers, called
, which overlooked the road and the drawbridge. Armed men bristled from the towers and the walls. And he knew there were others out of sight in the woods and lowlands around the castle.
There was definitely something going on. The men in the castle were on a war
footing, and this close to the castle walls he could see recent improvements had been made for its defense. Sharpened stakes designed to impale either infantry or horses had just been planted. Their tips were still fresh and oozing sap.
Yoshiko was greeted again at the portal leading to the inner gate, this time by a woman. She was most certainly a fine lady of great import. That was clear by her manner and those of the samurai around her.
She and Yoshiko bowed and smiled at each other, making many birdlike chirping sounds as they expressed affection and delight at seeing each other once more.
The woman, who Yoshiko referred to as
, which Muramasa indicated with some hand signs meant she was closely related to Yoshiko, was richly dressed in many layers of fine crisp silk, each designed to complement the ones beneath. Traces and edges of each layer showed when she moved. Her face was whitened by powder and her teeth stylishly blackened. For a moment Casca thought she had no teeth at all, then he recalled that this was also a custom of the ladies of the Chin. The woman took Yoshiko by the hand and led her away, but not before Yoshiko turned to the guards with Muramasa and Casca.
To the captain of their escort, she said most prettily, "Honored sir, will you see that my servants are given food and shelter? They have been most loyal on a long and difficult journey. I would have them treated well and it would be most kind if you left the animals and the packs on them in their care."
The samurai looked with certain distaste at Casca and Muramasa. But it was not his place to question. The servants should be true and loyal, otherwise they should lose their heads at once. Still, the ways of women were ofttimes hard to understand for a simple warrior.
Yoshiko was led off by the other woman who was saying something about the need for a proper bath and fresh clothes after such a tedious trip. He and Muramasa were taken into a large courtyard. It was from here that he had his first look at the fortifications of a Nihon castle. It was built to last. Huge blocks quarried from native stone were set without the use of mortar. There was no
need, just the weight of the stones would hold them in place. There were stables, barracks, cook houses and arms rooms. And most impressive of all, with the exception of Chin, was that it was incredibly clean and kept that way as was evidenced by the numbers of small stoop shouldered women with whisk brooms. They moved like worker ants around the courtyard removing every piece of dust that fell almost before it touched the stones.
They were turned over to the care of an
, the lowest ranked retainers in a noble household. With obvious distaste, he showed them to simple quarters in the back of the castle where they were given
to sleep on. Then with a great sniff from an overlarge nose, he told them where they might bathe.
Before they went to clean up they took their packs from their horses and brought them inside their small cubicle for safe keeping. Not that they thought any in this place would steal, for to do so, if caught, was to die. They just did not want any curious eyes to see their weapons and ask questions as to why two simple porters would have such things in their possession.
After luxuriating in a hot bath and changing into fresh crisp silk robes lent to her by her Aunt Mitsuko, Yoshiko felt almost human. The long ride was over, at least for a time. She had thought her tailbone would be driven up through her spine, but she could not let the common people with her know of her discomfort or they might have insisted on taking more stops to rest.
Now she was ready to find out what the warriors of the Minamoto were doing here far from their own provinces. Her aunt had avoided her question saying for her to wait until after she had refreshed herself. Then she would be told all. The events leading to Yoshiko's sister's death had long been known to her and there was no time for mourning. She did let Yoshiko know before she bathed that she had heard the sad news, but as samurai women they must put their feelings second to their duty.
Mitsuko came for her after she had sufficient time to prepare herself. At last she was properly gowned and her hair dressed and set with long jewel tipped pins. It seemed strange to Yoshiko to have the bleached rice powder on her face again and tint on her lips and cheeks. But at least she was once more a lady of quality for all to see and note.
When she answered the tap of a discreet finger on the
, a sliding door, she knelt with good grace to open it for her aunt.
Ah so desu?
Yoshiko-chan. You are very lovely. It is good that the terrible journey did not mar your beauty, for it will be of value to you and your family this day." Holding a finger to her lips, she said, "Shhh. Ask me nothing now. Just follow me and have faith, for as I promised earlier all will be answered for you in a few more moments. Patience is the spice of fulfillment."
As with all women, her curiosity was incredible, but she had learned as a child when to control it. She glided after her aunt's soft steps until they came to a door that she knew led to the chamber where her kinsman, by marriage to her mother's sister, held audience. Had Yoritomo sent the samurai to aid Kujo in some matter? Or were they here to make certain of his loyalty in the coming battles? She did not know, but four samurai guarded the doors, hands to the hilts of their swords. Two were Kujo's and two were Minamoto's.
With the tension building in her breast, the doors began to slide open ever so slowly until at last she saw what her
, Mitsuko, had promised was to come true.
Seated in the center of a long low back lacquered dais, flanked by Kujo on his left and his son, Yeshitsune, on the right, was her master and lord
– Yoritomo Minamoto.
It was the hour of the boar and the sun was just beginning to fall behind the mountains when Muramasa and Casca were summoned. It was with reluctance they had to leave their weapons behind, but they knew there was no way they would be permitted to carry them in this household without permission of the master.
Not knowing what to expect, they followed quietly behind the same large nosed retainer who had shown them to their cubicle. As Casca had suspected, the castle was on war footing. Armed guards were everywhere and they were alert and sharp looking. They eyed him and Muramasa suspiciously as they passed them on their way to wherever they were going.
When the retainer stopped in front of a
guarded by both the samurai of Kujo and the samurai of Minamoto, he halted. He hissed under his breath for them to show proper respect and to watch their manners or they would surely lose their heads. Kneeling down in front of the
, he spoke softly with many bows, though the listener on the other side could not see him. A moment passed before a voice whispered back. He bowed his head to the floor, slid back on his knees, and waited.
slid open, a kneeling samurai attendant bowed and then motioned silently with his hand for them to enter. They did as the retainer had, dropping to their knees they tried to move gracefully into the chamber. They failed miserably as they were not used to these court gymnastics. The attendant who opened the door looked at them with contempt. They were obviously inferior types. But if his master wished to see them, it was not for him to dispute his master's wisdom.
Casca kept his eyes on Muramasa, trying to emulate every movement. Somehow he knew when the sliding screen opened this was something more than a casual introduction to the kinsman of Yoshiko.
Muramasa went in first, bowing his head to the
mats, not raising his eyes. Casca did the same, slightly behind Muramasa. A voice barked at them hoarsely and they were permitted to raise their heads. It was then that Casca, for the first and last time, laid eyes on Yoritomo Minamoto.
He was by any standards a most impressive specimen. His face was full fleshed with a sharp hooked nose set firmly between heavy eyebrows. His eyes were dark, steady, with no sign of emotion in them. Only stark, clear intelligence gave them any fire. He was wearing armor in the style of
, a breastplate of black stained steel engraved with the sign of the dragon and the mantis, accented by white and blue cords. Over this was a glorious surcoat of plum satin under a cloak of purest blue silk.
He sat cross legged on a slightly raised dais behind a long knee high black table. On either side of him sat men of importance. One he took to be related to Yoritomo, though he was younger and much leaner, more like a falcon where Yoritomo was an eagle. On the other side sat a samurai noble with heavy features accented by incredibly thin slits for eyes so fleshy you barely made them out. Across his lap lay a sheathed
. Only he was armed. Casca took this to mean that he was a man whom Yoritomo trusted and was showing him honor by permitting him to have his weapons in his presence.
To his left and slightly behind, Yoshiko knelt. Casca almost lost his breath. He had never seen her in full dress. She was unbelievable. The women in the street he had seen in Kyushu were as weeds in a garden of orchids by comparison. She permitted herself only the slightest of smiles behind a painted fan, then lowered her eyes.
Yoritomo motioned for them to come closer. Muramasa slid ahead three knee lengths, then halted, placing his head back to the mat once more. Casca followed suit. Another bark and once more they were permitted to raise their heads. Casca had the idea that the retainer who had escorted them had been absolutely correct. One mistake and their heads would have rolled on the floor instantly.
Yoritomo spoke again, this time less harshly. The man with the sword addressed them.
"My niece, Lady Yoshiko, has told us of your service to her and through her to our master. She has told us that you have slain many of the Taira dogs during your journey to us. That is good. There is nothing like the blood of an enemy to know one's friends."
A slight, almost silent hissing halted the conversation. The
slid open and their packs were brought in by a kneeling samurai who handed them over to the attendant samurai who opened the
, bowed his head to the floor, and backed out on his knees, never once raising his eyes. There was nothing but silence when Kujo gave the attendant at the
permission to open the packs. From them everything was removed, clothes and pots and the weapons they had taken from the Taira they had slain and their own weapons. Of the weapons, none attracted any attention but two. The first was that of Sakai no Taira, the sword
Yoritomo motioned for the blade to be brought to him. Taking it from its sheath, he admired the workmanship, careful not to touch the bare metal with his flesh. He handed it to his younger brother, Yeshitsune, who examined it closely, then whispered into Yoritomo's ear. Yoritomo nodded in agreement,
then Yeshitsune gave it back to the attendant who placed it in front of Muramasa.
Yoritomo nodded his head and spoke to them directly, his voice as always, harsh, demanding, unforgiving to anyone and anything that failed him.
. I know this weapon. It was the property of Sakai Taira, an old, old acquaintance of mine. How came you by it?"
Muramasa nearly swallowed his tongue, but somehow he found the words.
"I took it from his dead hand, my Lord Yoritomo-sama." He used the title of respect when one spoke to a high lord. "I killed him in single combat and have brought this sword and the others to you, if you will accept such a poor thing from such as we."
Yoritomo grunted before he spoke.
"It is not such a poor thing this
. It was made by a master sword smith, Sanjo Kokaji. It is a treasure sword worth more than you and your barbarian could earn selling your swords in all your lives, even if you had three of them...
He looked at the other stack of weapons taken from the dead Taira,
then cut his eyes to Yoshiko. "I would not believe that common
such as yourself and your barbarian companion could have taken such trophies, except that the Lady Yoshiko has told me of your fighting skills. Therefore, I naturally accept all that she has said of you to be true, for she is a lady of great honor and purity whom I cherish highly. You have earned our gratitude. I accept
With that he clenched his jaws tightly, returning his face to its permanent scowl.
Kujo took over the conversation again. "Our master feels you have done well in your service to the Lady Yoshiko and to him. He wishes to know what you wish that he may reward you with for your services?"
Muramasa did not hesitate to speak for both of them. Casca was glad of it. He did not want to have any more conversation with the dour and dangerous master of the Minamoto than he had to. The man was a stone killer and his brother, Yeshitsune, didn't look any better.
"Lord Yoritomo-sama, we beg only to be permitted to enter your service for the glory of your name and family. That and nothing more is a greater reward than such as we could hope for."
Yoritomo said nothing. His eye was on the sheathed
. "Remove the blade from its sheath," he commanded.
Nearly swallowing his tongue, Muramasa did as he was ordered. Taking
into the flat of both of his palms, he lowered and extended his arms in the direction of Yoritomo. It was a great honor for him to be permitted to bare a weapon in the presence of the master.
Yoritomo did not take the sword into his hands, only looked at it from his dais. He knew great art when he saw it, but there was something about the
that made him keep his hands to himself. Carefully he ran his eyes over it and knew the weapon was perfectly balanced and the steel in the blade as fine as any he had ever seen, better even than
, perhaps even as great as the legendary sword of his ancestor, Yasutsuna, called
. But it was now in the hands of the hated Taira who insulted the Minamoto every day that it was in their possession.
Yeshitsune did not have the same qualms as his older half
-brother. He, too, recognized
as being something very special, and as some men do for a woman or gold, he lusted after the blade. It was with difficulty he kept the lust from showing. He also felt something in the shining, glowing steel, something that drew him to it.
Lowering his eyelids, Yoritomo carefully re-examined the two men before him. There was something about them, as there was about the sword held in the
outstretched hands. He had not come this far without being able to sense things that were unsaid and often unseen. These two would be of value to him, somewhere, sometime. That he was certain of. "Place your
back into its house for now, Muramasa-san. You will have need of it later. May I ask if it has a name yet?" Yoritomo inquired almost politely.
"Ah yes, thank you, Yoritomo
-sama. The blade is called
At that, Yoritomo insisted he tell of how the sword came by its name.
Reluctantly, but with pride, Muramasa told of killing the two by the spring of his father after the forging of the blade and of the excellence of the first cut the sword had made.
Yoritomo asked Casca if he had witnessed this act. Casca bowed his head acknowledging that it was so.
Yoshiko coughed delicately behind her painted fan. Yoritomo turned his attention to her. "You wish to say something, Lady Yoshiko-san?"
Nodding her head prettily, she spoke. "Thank you, my lord. I wish only to add that I have seen the man Muramasa perform such cuts with this
. It is truly an awesome sword and he is a most accomplished fighter. That is all."
Yoritomo came as close as he ever did to a smile, which was in truth no more than a twisting of the upper lip.
Leaning toward Muramasa, he said, "It seems that once more Lady Yoshiko has come forth to verify what you have done. Very well. You may place yourselves in my service. I give you into the care of my younger brother, Yeshitsune, who I am confident will find more than sufficient work for your
and your barbarian who I understand is very strong."
Muramasa bowed his head before speaking. As usual, Casca kept quiet. "Yes, Lord, he is very strong, more so than any man I have known before. Though he does lack finesse in the use of the
, his strength is such that he simply smashes through his opponent’s defenses, then either stabs them to death or sometimes takes their heads in his hands and breaks their necks."
Yoritomo spoke to Kujo in a whisper. Kujo nodded his head and summoned to him the attendant kneeling by the
. He spoke into his ear and the attendant vanished behind another screen to reappear within three minutes. He had been to the room where the trophies of Kujo's families were kept. In his hand he held a long straight sword more like those from Europe that Casca was familiar with. It was made for two hands and weighed nearly twelve pounds. It would take a very strong man to use one of them for very long in combat.
Yoritomo nodded his head at the samurai attendant who back scuttled across the floor on his knees to place the large sword in front of Casca.
"Take this then, barbarian, and use it well on my enemies and you shall be well appreciated in this land. Perhaps it will suit your large body and hands more than the
. Each to his own. May it bring you good fortune, for this sword has come down through the dark years to us. It is old and has fought more times than the trees have blossoms. Use it well with honor and prosper."
With that, the audience was at an end. They crawled backwards out of the presence of the lord of the Minamoto.
This time Yoshiko smiled openly, pleased that her words had been able to help her companions of the road. It was the least she could do and perhaps the most. Now as Yoritomo had commanded, he would talk to her alone without any others being in attendance.