Authors: Travis Heermann
Heart of the Ronin (The Ronin Trilogy: Volume One)
Copyright © 2009 by Travis Heermann.
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgements and Thanks
Special thanks to Minori Iyonaga, Yuuko Shichiji, Yumiko Machino, and Michiko Sumi of the Chikugo English Speaking Society, for their kind advice on Japanese history and culture, and their tireless, painstaking efforts at correcting my English. Any mistakes they did not catch are purely my own.
I would also like to offer sincere thanks to Naoko Ikeda, hachi-dan master of Japanese calligraphy, for her generosity and friendship, and for her beautiful artwork that graces my humble story.
And lastly but not leastly, I want to say thanks to the numerous readers who offered their comments and advice and helped me shepherd this story into its current form. You know who you are.
The First Scroll
“Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.”
Ken’ishi’s extended blade cast a ribbon of morning sunlight onto the ground at his feet. He looked down the curved edge of his upturned blade at the man who wanted to kill him. Takenaga’s eyes narrowed as he studied Ken’ishi’s unusual stance and unusual blade with its antique-style curvature. Silver Crane’s hilt felt good in his hands, like a part of him. He braced his feet wide apart and dug his worn wooden sandals deeper into the dirt of the road, to ensure they would not slip. His body faced to the side, and he gripped the hilt near his chin, looking over his left shoulder toward his enemy.
The two men stood with their blades extended between them like lethal shards of ice glimmering in the noonday sun. Takenaga’s hateful eyes blazed with cold ferocity, boring into him like awls.
Ken’ishi was accustomed to being shunned. He was a warrior without a master, and thus a person outside normal society, someone to be feared and distrusted, but he still did not understand the vehemence of Takenaga’s enmity toward him.
The older man’s lips tightened. “Coward! You fear death!”
Ken’ishi’s voice was calm, slow and even. “No, I merely wish to leave this village with its constable still alive.”
Takenaga changed to the lower stance, dropping the point of his blade toward Ken’ishi’s feet, testing, looking for a reaction.
Akao stood hunched, a few paces away, his rust-red mane standing on end, his tail down against his legs. A low, uneasy growl emanated from between his bared teeth, and his ears lay flat against his head.
But Ken’ishi was no longer aware of the dog, only his enemy. He did not move, standing still as a crane in a pool of water untouched by the wind. The flaring anger he had felt only moments ago was gone, subsumed by a strange wonder. Would he still live ten heartbeats from now? He had been in danger before, but never fought a real duel against a single, well-trained opponent. He had wiggled his way out of scrapes with clumsy town guards, faced down drunken bullies, and avoided angry innkeepers, but never a situation where someone’s death was assured. He must kill this man. Merely wounding him would not be sufficient to protect Ken’ishi’s own life. He saw in Takenaga’s eyes that the man would not rest until Ken’ishi was dead. Did he have it within him to kill?
He reached for the nothingness, shifting his awareness to the Now, the instant, forgetting the before and the after. His blade hung motionless in the air before him. His eyes did not move; he was focused on a point several paces behind his opponent, but his awareness encompassed the smallest of Takenaga’s movements; the shift of the man’s weight in preparation to strike, his grip on the hilt of his katana, the flex of the muscles in his forearms, and the inevitable explosion of movement.
* * *
Earlier that morning, before Ken’ishi even saw the village, the scent of smoke and onions wafting between the trees of the surrounding forest had sent his empty stomach into an uproar. His right hand absently massaged his empty coin pouch. Because he was ronin, he rarely found anyone willing to give him a job as even a common laborer. He was outside of society because he did not have a master, lower in some respects than even a whore or a merchant. There were no wars these days, not since the Minamoto clan had seized power away from the Emperor fifty years before. Ken’ishi could hardly conceive of such a vast gulf of time, of an era when all warriors had masters and respect. He had lived perhaps seventeen years—he did not know for certain—and fifty years was like a dozen lifetimes to him. Besides, he knew practically nothing of politics anyway. These days, lone warriors often resorted to robbery to support themselves. His teacher had taught him how to survive and how to use the sword at his hip, and little else about the world of men.
But there was something else his teacher had taught him, something he could do that other men could not.
Akao lifted his nose, taking in the scent, and spoke. “Smells like a village,” the dog said. “Give us some food?” A whimper of hunger escaped the dog’s throat.
Ken’ishi said, “Or maybe they’ll beat us with sticks. Remember the last time?” From the first day they had met, Akao had always thought with this belly.
“Beat us with sticks and we ran away.”
“Yes, we were lucky that time. The kami favored us.”
“Always hate us.”
“That’s why we trust only each other.”
“Yes, trust,” Akao said, his tail wagging, his tongue lolling.
Until he had left his teacher and met his foster parents, Ken’ishi had thought everyone could speak to animals, and he remembered the sudden sensation of alienation when he found they could not, and the suspicion in their eyes when they found that he could.
The path led down the rocky slope straight into the village. Through small gaps in the thick canopy, Ken’ishi saw the terraced patchwork of fields in the valley, with farmers cultivating their spring vegetables. He could not remember the last time he had eaten a hot meal. The earthy taste of the wild roots he had dug up earlier this morning lingered on his tongue, but did little now except fan the fire of his hunger. Akao usually sustained himself with mice and other small creatures, but Ken’ishi could not share those meals. There was too little meat on them, and he could not bring himself to eat them whole. Once, the dog had been lucky enough to catch a rabbit, and they had shared it that night.
He hoped the peasants would still have some rice, since the winter stores of food were often depleted by this time of year. But this land was new to him, different, warmer than the northern island that raised him. Cherry trees here were already in bloom, earlier than in the north. The last of his coins had purchased his sea crossing a few days ago, and he walked this unfamiliar land with nothing. He had no idea what to expect here; but his feet had no wish to remain still. Hitching up the coarse rope supporting his worn, tattered trousers and adjusting his dusty traveling pack on his shoulders, Ken’ishi rested a hand on his father’s sword, Silver Crane, as he resumed his trek down the mountainside.
Then he stopped as a strange tingling shot through his palm, lifting his hand from the silver pommel shaped like the head of a crane. He had never felt such a sensation before. Had he imagined it? He did not think so. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Silver Crane rested quietly in its scabbard. Ken’ishi gripped the hilt lightly, feeling the cool silver fittings and the roughness of the ray-skin grip. A strange thought came to him, the sudden feeling that he would have to use the sword today. While he had never used it to kill, he did not doubt that Silver Crane had been used to kill in the past, many, many times.
He resumed walking again, going more slowly now. As he walked, he listened to two sparrows hidden in the budding branches above. From the tone of the little birds’ voices, he knew they were berating each other. Small birds were so ill tempered sometimes. The understanding of their speech danced around his awareness, in sight but out of grasp. The birds spoke a strange, unfamiliar dialect, just like the people of this land, and he found understanding difficult at times.
The village came into view as he strode down the steep mountain path. It was larger than he expected, nestled between two forested mountainsides and straddling a narrow, rocky stream. He hoped he could find an inn or a teahouse that would offer a bowl of rice to an itinerant warrior. He had no money, but he was loath to resort to intimidation or thievery, even though he was practically starving.
As he drew nearer, Ken’ishi noticed several peasants in the fields had stopped working to watch him. He saw little of their faces under their broad straw hats. The small hairs on the back of his neck rose again. Surely he had little to fear from untrained farmers. The feeling of uneasiness spread down his spine, dredging the words of his teacher from the depths of his memory:
“If your sense of danger alerts you, heed it. This is how the kami speak to us. If the kami favor you, they will help you in the face of harm.”
Nevertheless, he thrust the hilt of the Silver Crane a bit further forward and added a bit of swagger to his step. Akao’s senses were sharp as well, nearly always sharper than his, and he trusted the dog to warn him of any danger.
The villagers on the main thoroughfare did not appear threatening. They bowed politely, offering greetings as he passed, going about their own business. Everyone appeared to be well fed and adequately clothed. In all, this seemed a prosperous village. He was suddenly conscious of the shabbiness of his own rough-woven, hemp clothes, little more than sackcloth. Most of these villagers wore brightly dyed linen. He smiled to himself, realizing he must be a fearsome sight indeed, unshaven, hair tied into an unruly shock, bow and quiver within easy reach, and the long, curved sword with its well-worn hilt and scabbard hanging from his rope belt. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage.
As he strode into the center of the village, he stopped and looked around.
The nearby villagers slowed their activities to better observe the stranger. A man appeared from the large, central house, shuffling toward Ken’ishi. The man’s face was round and plump, circled by wisps of graying hair. He moved with a peculiar limp, and one shoulder sagged lower than the other. His clothes were fine and crisp and brightly patterned, as if he had never worn them to do a day’s labor.
The man bowed obsequiously. His lips were strangely soft and wet as he spoke. “I am Yohachi, sir, the headman of this village. A lovely morning, sir, isn’t it?” His words were borne on a spray of distasteful, whuffling wetness, but at least he spoke in a dialect that the young warrior understood. The headman glanced uneasily at the dog, and the dog returned the stare, eyes narrowed with suspicion.
Ken’ishi bowed in return. “Yes, fine weather today.” He drank in the morning air, turning his body so that his sword was clearly visible.
“We are honored to have a powerful man such as you paying a visit to our humble village. Where are you bound for?”
“Don’t fear. I won’t be staying long. Only long enough to find something to eat.”
The man hesitated for only an instant. “Of course, of course! I was being rude! Please excuse me! Come along. Come to my house. My wife will make you something. And we have tea. Good tea!”
Ken’ishi glanced at Akao, and the dog grinned hopefully.
But as the headman turned and led him toward the large house, Ken’ishi thought he spied Yohachi making an almost imperceptible gesture at a boy watching them. The boy backed away between two houses and disappeared.
Uneasiness fluttered in his belly. That boy could be bringing a large village of angry farmers down upon him, but Ken’ishi had already executed his strike and now must follow it through.
Ken’ishi and Akao followed Yohachi through the front gate of his home, past the modest garden, and into the house. As was his custom, Akao sat down outside the door, where he would wait until his friend came out. Akao gave Ken’ishi a glance that said, “Bring me something this time.”
Yohachi slid the door closed. “May I take your pack, sir?”
“I’ll keep it with me. No need to trouble yourself.”
The plump little man bowed again, perhaps a bit too low and for too long, then seated him in the main room and disappeared into the kitchen. Ken’ishi shrugged off his pack and untied his sword, placing it beside him on his left. All around him, he sensed small movements and voices throughout the house; hidden whispers and stealthy footsteps. Children? Servants?
Yohachi returned carrying a steaming bowl. Ken’ishi’s nostrils flared at the scent. He took the bowl, but not too eagerly, and found it filled with hot, seasoned rice and green onions. His mouth burst with water as he readied the chopsticks and lifted the bowl to his lips. Barely taking the time to blow the steam off, he shoveled rice into his maw.