Authors: Barry Sadler
Yoshiko and Yoritomo were left alone in the open room. Even the attendant by the
had been dismissed. Yoritomo indicated for Yoshiko to come and sit by him while he poured tea for both of them. It was a sign of singular honor for him to do so. Waiting until each had taken several courteous sips of the steaming brew, Yoritomo set his eggshell thin porcelain cup down on the table.
"My child, I am very pleased with you. You have lived up to my every expectation. Now I am going to ask something of you that will be very difficult. I would not make this request of you if I did not consider it to be of the greatest import. Your acceptance will save many thousands of lives and most probably guarantee our success, especially now that you have given me the Kwanto."
Yoshiko bowed her head, holding her teacup between long graceful fingers. "My life is yours, my lord," she responded quite simply and honestly.
"I know, my child, and that is what I am asking you for.
Her heart caught in her breast. It was a struggle to control the tremor in her voice as she repeated, "my life is yours, my lord. What must I do?"
Yoritomo wanted to reach out and touch her but could not. His responsibilities were too great to let the life of one woman interfere. And it was true. She could by her death save the lives of thousands of his men who would be needed for the final battle.
He bowed as deeply as he could to show his respect for her. "I promise you, Yoshiko
-chan, that your gift will do as much, if not more than an army of ten thousand men. With your gift I will have all I need. Now I have not only the retired Emperor Go-shirikawa but the brother of Antoku, Gotoba, under my protection. Our armies have taken all the provinces of the north, and even the Yamabushi mountain warriors have rallied to me as well as most of the warrior monks. Yours is the last offering I need to make everything we have worked for for so many years come to pass. I thank you, Yoshiko-chan." Again he used the expression of great fondness and affection.
"Now this," he continued, returning to his more familiar stern and cold visage, "is the way in which it shall he done. Listen closely
, my child..."
They talked long into the night before Yoshiko was permitted to leave him and retire to her chambers, exhausted emotionally and physically. She at last cried herself to sleep. At times it was very hard to be samurai, but she would not fail her duty and her promise to her lord, though there were many pleasant things left to experience in this life. Muramasa and Casca passed through her thoughts and she blushed delicately.
In the morning when the sun rose at the hour of the dragon, Muramasa and Casca were summoned to Yeshitsune who waited for them in the courtyard. "You have been given to me to deal with. Get your things ready to travel. Your horses are being prepared. We ride for the north and battle."
To Casca he pointedly said, "Do not fail me at anything, barbarian. You remind me too much of the hairy Ainu, whom I detest. I suggest you stay close to your companion, Muramasa
-san, whom I recognize as being a great artist. You may also know that my brother has given me full power to reward or punish you in his name. Whatever I decree will be the same as if from his own lips."
They wished to say farewell to Yoshiko but this was not permitted.
"Do not trouble me with your petty problems. I have a war to finish and you are now part of that war to the end, to victory or death, possibly both. See yourselves to your animals and be ready to ride in ten minutes!"
They had no choice. Returning quickly to their chamber, they gathered their belongings together and hurried back to where their horses had already been brought into the courtyard and were waiting for them. Not knowing just where to fit in, they found a gap between the two companies of cavalry that would accompany Yeshitsune. The rest of the Minamoto samurai would remain behind with Yeshitsune's brother to serve as his escort.
Casca had the feeling that he might not ever lay eyes on Yoshiko again. A terrible and great sadness came over him. He had liked her very much, might possibly even have been a bit in love with her. Now he felt he would never know. A look at Muramasa, whose eye he caught, and he knew the
felt the same way. They nodded to each other as if to say, karma, and rode after Yeshitsune to enter the last stages of the war against the Taira.
For the next weeks they marched and fought pitched battle after battle, Yeshitsune always taking the lead. He was quick and better than most of his peers in the use of tactics and movement.
While Yeshitsune was in the field his brother, Yoritomo, was taking care of the final details. Conducting few actions himself, his main interest was the alignment of the families of power and the alienation of them from the Taira. He moved into the Kwanto. The passes were open to him and closed to the Taira.
Yeshitsune had earlier advanced his army to where it threatened the northern flank of Heian-Kyo, forcing the Taira to respond with a movement of large numbers of their forces. That was when Yoritomo broke through to take the imperial city. He was too late to take the boy Emperor Antoku into his protection but all else fell to him. The Taira were split and driven south. This victory he dedicated publicly to Yoshiko, for without her it might not have been
It was a sad thing she had to do and a magnificent one. His torturers found out the rest of the story from prisoners before their heads joined the piles set in front of the gates of Heian
-Kyo. There were Taira heads there by the thousands.
Yoshiko had been sent with a written message from Yoritomo to certain nobles, thanking them for their support and promise of aid in the revolt against the Taira. To each of the nobles he promised the lands and estates of the enemy when victory was theirs. This was written in a code to which he knew the Taira already had the key. Subterfuge was Yoritomo's strongest point, the ability to use the paranoia that exists within the breast of power.
He would give the Taira something they could not refuse to believe. Lady Yoshiko was that something. As was planned, she and her escort were intercepted by the samurai of Taira who guarded and patrolled the roads he knew she must take after visiting three of the names on the letters of thank you. Her escort fought to the death and she was taken prisoner.
Because of her rank, she was brought before Koremori Taira, the Prime Minister of Antoku. There, as the story was related to him, Lady Yoshiko stood up to every threat, refusing to answer any questions. Then, when Koremori showed her the letters with the code broken, she had broken into tears and begged him to permit her to wipe out the disgrace of failure.
Yoritomo knew Koremori well and the one thing he liked more than power was death. He granted her wish.
Yoshiko was permitted to prepare herself with the aid of Minamoto women who had been held as hostages for their men's good behavior. She had dressed all in white, the color of mourning, accented with red silk undergarmets to signify her ready acceptance of her fate. The women dressed her hair, tying it up high to bare her long graceful neck. Then with great grace and style she had taken the dagger given to her by one of her attendants, and with steady hands and clear eyes she cut the great vein in the neck in the rite called
. She then lay her head in a cushioned wicker basket so that her blood would not stain her clothes and she died.
This was the final proof that Koremori needed to prove the letters were true. The death of Yoshiko had given him that. She could not live with her disgrace and failure. That he understood.
Immediately he sent troops to attack the new rebels, taking many thousands of men away from the defense of the city. He had to do it or all would have been lost if the rebels had time to join their forces with Yoritomo.
The letters were false
. All that he accomplished was to throw the names on the letters into the arms of the Minamoto rebels, causing him to split his forces at a critical time of Yoritomo's choosing. And when the passes from the Kwanto were opened to Yoritomo, he did not have enough men to defend against him.
Now Koremori was involved with a series of running battles along the southern coasts, taking Antoku with him. His plans, which Yoritomo already knew from his spies in Koremori's camp, were made. They would have their next battle at a place of his choosing.
He was already gathering ships and forcing thousands of peasants into his ranks to replenish those fallen in combat. It was a pity there was no time to train most of them properly, but their deaths would still aid his cause. He would throw the inexperienced peasants into the front ranks to tire out the sword arms of the Minamoto, then he would tend in his fresh, strong, battle tested and proven samurai against them. Even outnumbered, that should give him an equal chance for victory. And with his fleet to maneuver, he would be able to land troops behind the supply lines of the Minamoto, reducing their ability to stay in the field.
All he needed was this one victory,
then he would begin to roll up the enemy, advancing back to the north and Heian-Kyo. He was not through yet! There were still many lords who would lose their lives and lands if they did not come to his aid. They had served him too long. Yoritomo was certain to take vengeance against them if he was victorious.
All this and more Yoritomo knew and he was quite content. To those who had supported the Taira, he promised on the most sacred vows that he would take no vengeance. They would put all past grievances behind them and work together for a new day. This he swore by Gentle Bhudda and by the ancient and te
rrible gods of war. To this he signed his family's honor to the end of time.
But if they did not join him, then it would also be true that they would die and lose their rank and lands forever. Their children would be sold into slavery and their women taken as whores for his soldiers to play with. To this he also swore the same great oaths. He was believed. Few came to the Taira ranks.
Koremori was alone in the south. There would be just this one last battle, then all would be done and the Minamoto would reclaim their rightful place.
If there was
a sadness to the sacrifice of Yoshiko, there was also great joy. For she would be forever honored and remembered. Her story would become legend to live beside the great heroes of antiquity. There would be a thousand plays and songs written of her once he told the truth about her courage and how she saved thousands of Minamoto warriors from death.
Hers was a most lonely death, but then does not each die alone even when surrounded by thousands? Is not each death singular, something that can never be truly shared or felt by another?
For the first time in his memory, he shed a single tear. He would, in her memory, write a poem.
During the battles for the northern approaches, Yeshitsune's men came into fierce battle with a clan of warrior monks of the Sohei cult.
Only after fierce resistance was the monastery, which was really a fort, captured, but only after the loss of men at a three to one ratio in favor of the monks. Casca was glad there weren't more of them or it might have gone very badly. As it was, his regiment of six hundred men had to stop for several days to rest and bind their wounds.
He and Muramasa put their rest time to good use, taking advantage of the hot springs that lay below the monastery in a green glen. Here the waters bubbled, even during the coldest winters, keeping the valley perpetually green and fresh. Birds sang and flowers bloomed in profusion.
Casca thought he would have liked for Yoshiko to have been there with them. She would have seen it with different eyes and explained it to him. As it was the waters were warm and soothing to weary, strained muscles.
Muramasa sat on a submerged boulder covered with soft green water grass, letting the heat soak deep into his flesh, luxuriating in the warmth.
Eyeing Casca across the pond, he wondered again about the many scars on his body. They had been together now for some months and he still knew little of the
and his past or even how he came to be cast upon the shores of Kyushu. Closing his eyes, he submerged his head for a moment under the hot steaming waters, then rose again. Shaking the water from his face and hair as a dog would whip droplets from its pelt, he returned to his idle speculation of Casca. He looked at the new scar among the many others. He had seen that one take place not two days ago.
He and Casca, with a detachment, had been attacking the south walls of the monastery when a light throwing lance had struck the
in the lower abdomen. He had seen the head of the lance penetrate to a depth of at least ten inches. The
had pulled it out and continued the battle, though he was obviously in much pain and his huge antique battle sword did great damage among the warrior monks of the Sohei. It was a wound, which if not fatal, should certainly have incapacitated him for several weeks. He did lie down after the fight for a full night and now here he was, as good as new, and the wound was closed, looking as if it were already several years old.
This was not the only time he had seen such things happen to his strange friend. More and more he thought that perhaps Casca and his sword
were somehow connected. Both had awesome powers.
Breast stroking, Casca swam over to Muramasa and sat down beside him in the warm waters.
"What do you think of the things Yeshitsune told us about Yoshiko?" He blurted this out most unexpectedly.
Yeshitsune had told them before they went into action against the monks that Yoshiko had died by her own hand and she had died nobly. That was all, and this he gave out only reluctantly. Casca was certain that his brother, Yoritomo, had ordered him to tell them of her death or they might not have known for months.
Muramasa lowered his face into the water giving him an opportunity to gather his thoughts. Pulling his head back up, dripping, he shook the warmness from his face. "I do not know, Casca-san. She was a most exceptional woman. I am sure that she did die well, that is all I can tell. I feel as if we have both lost one who would have been a great friend to us forever. I miss her very much. Perhaps someday we will know the entire story but if not, her memory is alive in us and will live as long as we do."
Casca nodded his head in agreement. Yes, if that was so, then Yoshiko
-chan would indeed live a very long time. After all the great lords of the Sun Rise Empire had long been turned to dust and their swords rusted away, she would still live in his memory. Of that he was also certain, for she had indeed been a most exceptional woman.
There was a long awkward silence then. At last Muramasa, as Casca had earlier, blurted out, "Casca
-san, if it would not offend you, would you tell me something true about yourself?"
Casca had seen this coming for some time, since the first arrow had sunk into his left shoulder at the battle of Ha
se Kannon outside of Kamakura, where the shrine of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, watched over eight thousand men as they killed each other with swords, axes, hatchets and arrows. She must have cried great tears of sorrow that day for the blood that was shed by her shrine to mercy and gentleness.
He did have a chance to get one quick look inside at the statue of the goddess. It stood twenty seven feet high and was carved out of one solid piece of a camphor log. Muramasa had told him the statue of the goddess was around five hundred years old. At any rate it was there that Muramasa had pulled the barbed head from Casca's shoulder. Then as he was cleaning the wound, Muramasa saw it close and become a scar within minutes. It hadn't been very deep, though it did hurt a bit. He'd had much worse. The expression on Muramasa's face when he saw the wound close was like the shutting of an open door. He slammed down everything inside him. It was the same as if he'd seen nothing. He just put his lint and bandages away and walked off saying nothing about
He knew it was only a matter of time before Muramasa got around to asking him about his condition. Now that time was here and he wasn't sure what he was going to say. Muramasa was not a fool. He did believe in spirits, had many mystical things that touched him, especially since
had come into his life. But he was no fool and Casca couldn't treat him like one. He owed the stern little man with the insane sword that much.
That was one conclusion he'd come to. The sword, and not Muramasa, was mad. He wished he'd get rid of it before it turned on him.
"Of course, Muramasa-san. You may ask me anything, but please understand that what I say may not mean exactly the same to you as it does to me. However, I must use your frame of reference."
-san. I know that we come from very different cultures and do not always see or even feel things in the same manner. But we are men. I mean I am, but are..." He left the question unfinished, giving Casca time to back away from it if he chose to.
Casca began his tale, taking Muramasa back through the long centuries past. He told him of his odyssey through time and how he had come to be cursed at Golgotha when he'd driven his lance into the side of the man from Galilee. It had taken him hours and the night was nearly on them. Only the warmth of the hot pool kept the chill away as he finished his story.
Muramasa had sat silent through the tale, at times nodding his head as he understood a fine point, other times shaking it in wonder, even in horror at the road Casca had to take. When it was done, he knew Casca had told him the truth. The evidence had been seen by his eyes more than once. There was magic in the world. Witness
He had made no comment about the tale told by Casca. There was little he could say. He did know that he had to go with the
to wherever their road would take them, but it was a heavy burden to carry with him, not only a cursed sword but also a cursed man. He had so many questions to ask. Perhaps one day when the time was right he and the long nosed one would sit down and he would ask the things that were rushing into his mind. But not now. Now they had battles yet to fight and he was not yet samurai.