DAVID KIRK - The Official Site of the Author

The official site of the author of the Musashi series of books.

The official site of the author of the Musashi series of books., David Kirk.

MUSASHI III :

HELL AND SILENCE

The masterless swordsman Musashi Miyamoto wanders the country of Japan in solitude. Men seek his head for vengeance, men seek his head for glory. What Musashi seeks he cannot say. A man scoured of ideals and purpose, defining himself only by the violence in which he was raised. A decade of winnowing leads him ultimately to Kojiro Sasaki, faithful servant of the Lord Hosokawa and revered hero of the invasions of Korea. The two finest swordsmen in the country destined for the dawnlit shores of Ganryu island.

CHAPTER ONE

Fire, I once heard from a man staring at a fire much like the one before us all now, gives out its heat and the heat leaves behind emptiness, and emptiness must be filled. As the tide draws in and draws out, the man said, so fire burns and men take its heat and what it sucks back from them is stories.

A hearth pit in the centre of the room is stoked with coal and tinder, blazing, blazing. So bright, so bright, and though it is my task to ensure it burns through the night I must stand at its edge shivering with my back to the barred door and the winter outside.

Sir Muso looks warm. He is close to the fire and his skin is pink. He is a samurai. His big sword is away locked in a chest in the fore hall. His little sword he has with him somewhere under the blankets he has wrapped himself in. His eyes are all flickering orange and his lips move: “Is it not a time for tales? I wish to tell…”

On the wall behind him is hung the sleeveless jacket he wore when he arrived at our roadhouse this morn. He has spread it out so the letters threaded in gold down the back of it are clearly visible like a banner on a horseman’s back. I cannot read the letters because they are in the higher hand where every one is a little picture, but Father told me that Sir Muso told him that they say Sir Muso is a master of the Hinomoto style.

“I wish to tell a peculiar tale,” says Sir Muso, “One I experienced. A tale of the unnatural.”

It seems no man here wants to hear it; there are six other men within this low dorm all wrapped up like Sir Muso is and they all keep silent. A hall for women stands opposite, where Otsuu is tasked as I am tasked here.

“Have no fear, have no fear,” says Sir Muso, “We have us a priest present. No foul spirit shall encroach upon us, is that not right, revered one?”

The priest is an old man. His neck looks strange, as though someone slit a frog’s when it was all big in its gerrog-gerroging and left it to dangle and flap. The priest seems to be sleeping as he sits and Sir Muso has to ask him again before he stirs. The priest rustles around beneath his blankets and he brings out a charm the size of my little finger. He opens the tiny door and inside I can just about see the gold form of a Buddha. Which one I don’t know, but the priest places the little charm down on the ground and so we are warded by him or her and the old man goes back to sleeping.

Still nobody seems to want to hear the samurai’s story, but nobody says no either. Every eye that is open is staring at the fire.

Sir Muso sees me, beckons: “Come, boy.”

Permitted, I move to sit by his side. This close to the heat my skin begins to hurt as it warms. I do not think Sir Muso summoned me because he felt sorry for me but rather that he wants someone he thinks will listen. He slaps a hand on my shoulder as though I might run away.

“Listen, then,” says Sir Muso, “It was a winter’s eve much like this, I remember. That afternoon I had sat myself beneath a waterfall in the depths of the forest for three straight hours to inure myself to the pain and to the cold. This is good for the flesh and for the spirit. When I was done I was heading home in the twilight, and I saw the steam rising from a pool I knew to be heated by the mountain. But it was lit strange in that failing light, pale and green like the breath of Saint Fudo.

“I ventured forth to discover the cause of this queer happening, and in the pool I found a woman bathing. The waters were up to her chin and her hair was out and floating upon the surface like swirling ink. She was looking at me as though she knew I was always meant to appear as I was. And so beautiful this woman, I swear to you, as beautiful a face as ever you have seen. Lips so thin no secret would ever be uttered, eyes as black as the purest night. She was smiling, and around her, upwards, always this steam, upwards.”

Likewise before us steam rises from two black iron pans, one boiling water for tea and the other simmering sake.

“I called out to her: ‘Dear sister, it is late. Have you no escort to guide you home before the night falls?’ She says to me: ‘I am quite content here. Why do you not join me? The water will warm your soul.’ It was very, very cold and I, I remind you, had spent the day in chilling foam. And she so beautiful, so, so beautiful. I saw no danger and so I stripped myself naked and stepped into the waters. No breath stole from me, no shock of heat – it was a perfect warmth, like that of the cradle. I sit, and we look at each other. I tell her that I am Gonnosuke Muso, of the bloodline Fujiwara, of the realm of Wakasa and disciple of the blade, and she tells me that she knows.

“She comes to me. She rises out of the water and I see her in her full resplendence. She has no shame and I appreciate it. There is nothing quite so erotic as a woman’s body that shimmers with the gleam of water. Her nipples poking through the silken tendrils of her hair that hung down like some natural gown. Her hips, her sex-”

The man sitting opposite is a merchant from somewhere far heading for the docks of Osaka. As Sir Muso speaks these words the merchant’s eyes look to the priest, who is sleeping, and then to me, who has never heard a story like this.

“Just the merest hint of her lusting sex!” says Sir Muso, “And everything below this shrouded in mist. No sign of her legs. Oh, I should have noticed that sign, more fool me. The peril, the peril! She asks me if I am married. I tell her no. She asks me if I have promised my heart to another. I tell her my heart is filled only with dedication to the Way. She is standing so close to me know, my eyes at her navel, and she places her hands on my cheeks. She asks if I see any sin in pleasure. I tell her no, and she leans down and kisses me.

“Her tongue and mine together like eels, and when that kiss is done she sits herself down on me and repeats it. She tastes like mint, and we begin to make love right there in that pool. The ecstasy of the act, I tell you, was beyond compare. Imagine this beauty, this beauty as though you have never seen, and she is on top of you and she knows the methods so very well. Hands cupping my face, her hair long and though it is wet it feels like the finest silk. The warmth that flowed through me, my engorged manhood hard as the truest tamahagane and thrumming like a forge, and oh! Oh!

“But I was deceived! As I felt my climax draw near suddenly a bolt of pain shot through me! I opened my eyes and I looked up and saw not the face of beauty but a leering demon’s face! Cat’s eyes and a shark’s teeth and grin from ear to ear. Devil woman! ‘You are mine, brave Sir Muso! I will dine well upon your noble soul!’ she hisses. I feel her start to pull my essence away not with her hands, nor her mouth, but through the very conduit that had supplied my pleasure not a moment before! I look at my arms and see my veins bulging like leeches, my eyes feel as though they shall be sucked into my skull.

“No! Not I! I say: ‘Vile hag! You have not met one of the line of Muso before!’ and I engage her in a titanic contest of wills for the fate of my very soul. I clench my fists and I grit my teeth and I begin to fight her insidious desires. I summoned every technique my masters taught me. Terror forms in her eyes as she feels resistance, and then it grows and grows as I begin to win – as I begin to suck what she has stolen back through. Back to its rightful vessel. My nails digging so hard into my palms that they draw blood, but slowly, slowly, I feel my vitality coursing homewards, and she begins to wither, she begins to-”

“Tarry a moment,” interrupts the merchant, “Thy claim is you drew your spirit back up through the eye of thy manhood?”

Sir Muso blinks. “Yes.”

The travelling merchant speaks with funny words but not the oddest I have heard. He asks, “You have that ability, with thy…?”

Sir Muso nods.

“That must be some prodigiously talented prick you have,” says the merchant, “Mine but flows the one way see, in all things.”

“It is not a matter of flesh, or muscle, or…” says the samurai, “When one has a complete and total mastery of spirit, of ki, as I do, one can will the essence back and forth as it… Through any vessel or, or limb, or appendage… That was the point I was trying to illustrate. I willed my ki back when the hag was coupled to me, and in doing so slew her, and her dark and lingering evil was vanquished.”

“Indeed,” says the merchant, and even I can see his eyes are not innocent, “Undoubtedly a hero. Would be hard to serenade thy choice of weapon in an ode though, no?”

I feel Sir Muso’s hand form a fist that grabs the scruff of my jerkin. He sucks in a breath and I think he is about to say something angry when Sir Shikitei laughs. It is he who has been drinking the sake and his face is like a berry because of it. I do not know if he is a friend of Sir Muso’s for they arrived at separate times but he is a samurai as well and they have been talking together as though they know one another.

“Easy now, easy now,” he says to Sir Muso, “No malice in his observation.”

“What of you then?” asks Sir Muso of the merchant, “You see fit to belittle my story, yet provide none of your own. Where is your tale?”

“Of ghosts?” says the merchant, and his eyes look to the roof, “I have none to share. At least none I think thy gathered will find interesting.”

“As I expected.” says Sir Muso.

“Unless…” says the merchant, and now his eyes at the fire, and the fire demands, demands, “It was strange and… The night mine father died. I was distant from him and I was woken from sleep. I saw something in the room with me. It was hovering and it looked to me akin to a fish. A carp. And it was hovering, and then it left. Mine father suffered a length of time a malady, and I cannot… It seemed content, this carp. Happy to go. Is all. Is my tale.”

Sir Muso snorts. “How on earth can you tell if a fish is happy?”

Sir Shikitei though is nodding even before Sir Muso speaks: “You remind of when I heard that my grandmother died. I too was distant. I had what I thought was a dream. My grandmother was lying in a boat on her back and I was wading out and pushing this boat outwards. To what I cannot tell, neither river nor sea, but the water was still and… And she takes me by the hand, my grandmother, and smiles. Says for me to cast her off.”

Sir Muso tries to speak again but he is cut off by a third man, who has not spoken more than requests or thanks since he arrived, telling that on the day of his younger sister’s death he thought that he saw a stream of glowing butterflies heading up towards the moon.

It is all strange to me. I have seen nothing like what they say they have seen, but then nobody that I can remember has died, and these men do not seem as though they are lying.

I think Sir Muso wants to think they are, though. He is looking around, away from them, angry, seeking. He finds his target and says: “What of you? I suppose you a saw a great ghostly spirit cow when your chamber maid choked on a fishbone? Or have you some other tale to regale us with?”

He has chosen the tall man, who is the quietest of us all, the stillest. He too is a samurai, but his clothes are ragged and his head is not shaved on the scalp but full and long. He arrived two nights ago and was kept here by the snow, and now he is on his side facing away from us all, at the very limit of the fire’s power. As though he wants no part of it. As though he is done with it.

Sir Muso asks him again, but the man does not want to answer. He is not sleeping so Sir Muso does not let him in peace, and nags and nags and nags at him until the tall man at last speaks up.

“I have no tale currently,” he says, not looking at us, “But perhaps one day I might. Far, far up north, at the very tip of Honshu, I have heard that there is a mountain. This mountain is called Osore. It is said there is a mouth to the hells upon it. I should like to go there, and look down into it.”

“Oh indeed?” says Sir Muso, “And what is it you expect to see within it?”

The tall man murmurs something.

“Amida?” says Sir Muso, “Amida? The Buddha Amida resides in hell, he says. Do you hear that, revered one?” The priest is still asleep, but Sir Muso doesn’t care, is amused all the same, “An unabashed heretic we have here! Amida in hell, what a foolish notion.”

On and on he goes, slapping my shoulder, Sir Muso, and the tall man does not answer. Sir Muso is happy now because he thinks he is right, but I think he heard wrong.

What I think the tall man said was ‘a mirror’.

Sir Muso laughs until he doesn’t any more. Perhaps the fire has drank all it wants to for no one seems to have anything else to say. It is just me the syce, the sleeping priest, the three samurai, the Osaka merchant and the other men who have not told us who they are and will not. All of us in silence.

“I know a joke,” I say soon, because my skin and my blood are warmed now, and unbidden I tell it to them: “There was a big, big drought that went on for a half-year, and the crops began to fail, and all the horses and all the cows began to die, and then the people too. So all the people, all the other people that weren’t dead, they went to a temple and prayed and prayed and prayed for water. The gods listened, and so the earth shook and a tsunami came.”

No one laughs.

***

Things like that is why I am put out to tend to the horses, Father tells me the next morning. It was not my joke. I just heard it. Then why would you tell it, Father says, what with your own poor mother and father who died in a drought? Do you not think their ghosts are weeping now to hear you make jests of such tragedy?

Why is everyone all of a sudden talking about ghosts?

He sends me out to do a syce’s work and see to Sir Muso’s steed. It is the only horse in the stable. Perhaps it is lonely. It is big and black and its breath steams like mine does. Standing near to it I can feel the warmth of its body. It has a padded coat that hangs to its feet that it spent the night in. I take this off and brush its flanks and comb its mane.

“Big stupid buck toothed beast, aren’t you?” I say out loud, soothing, “Big and stupid and stupid and big.”

It doesn’t understand me. It chomps at the air, teeth clack clacking. Sir Muso was sure to tell me that it was a war horse, that it was trained to kick and to bite so to take utmost care around it. It seems like any other horse to me. It has its salt like any other and I shovel in its straw like any other and I go to give its water like any other and find the trough empty.

I must go to the stream. I wrap myself up in a shawl and take a bucket and an iron dowel and head outside. There is not a cloud in the sky and my eyes hurt to see the snow beneath the sun. I can feel the iron begin to freeze in my bare hand so I wrap my hand in the shawl and carry it like that; no gloves for syces.

The stream is not far. I hurry to it, set the bucket down, raise the rod and bring it down upon the ice. It bounces off. I hit again. Nothing shatters and I see no water. I begin to wonder how deep the ice goes, begin stabbing down with the rod as though it were a shovel rather than a hammer. Chips of ice fly, and still my bucket is empty. After forty heartbeats and forty strikes all I have made is a little gouge, and my throat is hurting with the cold.

I become aware that someone is looking at me. It is the tall man. It seems as though he has stumbled upon me, headed away somewhere in the woods. He stops and jerks his chin at the rod. I do not think I could tell him no – my eyes are barely at his chest and his face looking down at me is strange, marked with scars, and his eyes are very serious. I barely notice the swords at his waist. I give him the rod and he takes it and he starts to stab downwards at the ice. His arms are thin, I see, but they are nothing but muscle. He digs and gouges quickly, and he does not tire.

Though he works for some time he finds no water. Instead he begins to carve, to jiggle, and soon he brings out this great big solid block of ice perhaps the length of my shin on each side. His breath in the cold is like a dragon’s mist must be. I look at the block when he sets it on the ground. I tap it with my foot. It is heavy and hard.

“If we had enough of these,” I say, “We could build a castle.”

He says nothing, the tall man. I look down into the hole he dug and see damp mud. Frozen to the bottom. The stream stretches away from us either way and it is quite pretty, grey and shiny like the fancy wood that expensive cupboards or chests or platters are made out of.

“Do you think all the fish are dead?” I ask him.

Instead of speaking he nods at the bucket. The block will not fit in it, sits with one corner in the lip like a dice about to be rolled. Like that, balanced, I carry it back to the stable. The tall man comes with me. I say nothing.

Inside the stable there is an iron stove. I fill this with coal and light it then drag a trough over near to it and set the ice inside. I do not know how long it will take to melt, but I look at the block and think of when horses come in with their sides all torn by brambles or with stones wedged in their feet, of the salt I put in water to clean their wounds: a hunk of it takes hundreds of heartbeats to vanish, whilst a handful of powder goes quick.

I take the rod and smash the block into pieces until none remains larger than the coal within the stove. The tall man watches me do all this. He seems as interested in the tools hung upon the walls, all my rasps and bridles and brushes, as much as he in me. I turn to him when the ice is set for melting.

“Thank you for helping me, sir,” I say, bowing, “Is there anything further I can do for you?”

He looks at me for a moment, then asks:

“Have you ever wanted to throw rocks at a samurai?”

***

It is not a big rock in my hand, more of a pebble. I roll it between my fingers, then look to the tall man: “You are sure?”

He says nothing, merely jerks with his chin. He has sat himself down in the hay, crossed his legs, put his palms on his thighs. His face goes soft, or he stops crunching up his face like he’s not concentrating – but he must be concentrating – and I see he is nowhere near as old as I thought he was. Much younger than Father. His eyes go wide and downwards, he stops blinking. It looks like he might be looking at my feet, or at a daydream.

“Ready?” I ask.

His head moves in one small nod but his eyes stay where they are. I throw the stone, and the tall man brings up his hand to try and bash it away. He misses and the stone cracks off his brow. The tall man hisses and shakes his head. It looks like it hurt. I did not throw it gently.

“Sorry!” I say.

He says nothing, goes back to how he was before.

“Again?” I ask.

A nod.

“Look at the stone when I throw it,” I say, “That will help.”

He does not though. His eyes are always away, distant, unmoving, as I throw stone after stone and he brings his hands up without looking at them. He is not very good – perhaps he stops one in three. But he does not ask me to stop, even when I see blood on his lip. Nor does he ask to throw any back at me - it is a strange game to play. Perhaps this is where all the little dinks of scars on his cheeks came from.

In the trough the chunks of ice melt. As I am gathering up the stones I have thrown to throw again, Father comes in and sees me.

“Mikinosuke,” he says, angry, “What are you playing at? There’s only a single horse in here, you must have tended to it by now. Have I not told you before about your dallying and your-”

The tall man is still sitting and Father has not seen him behind the walls of the stable. He stands now and his face is no longer empty, back to how it was before, and Father sees this and sees the blood, and he stands up straight like he is scared.

“Good sir,” he says to the samurai, “Apologies for my intrusion. I apologise also for young Mikinosuke. No doubt he is bothering you, and-”

The tall man shakes his head. Father stops speaking. The tall man picks up his swords, slides them into the rope around his waist and walks past him out into the bright day. He nods to me before he goes. I think this is him saying thank you.

Sir Muso’s horse goes heh-heh-heh like a sneeze. The coal within the stove hisses. Father moves to warm his hands by it. He has cut himself this morning, no doubt gutting the breakfast fish, and his palm is wrapped in a dirty bandage.

He looks at me: “What was happening there?”

I tell him.

“And so you threw stones at him?”

“He asked me to.”

“Just as easy that?”

I nod.

“Something wrong with you, isn’t there, lad?”

“But you told me that I have to obey samurai. You said that-”

“If a bear told you to put your hand in its mouth, would you?”

“But you told me!”

“You’ve got a lot to learn, Mikinosuke.”

He sucks air through his teeth, shakes his head, and then grabs me by the scruff and leads me off towards the fore hall where he says Otsu needs a hand beating out the futons. A push outside and then we go our separate ways, he off to the shed for firewood.

***

I do not make it to the fore hall. Sir Muso and Sir Shikitei are standing in the entrance to it, looking out from behind the curtains that hang half way to the ground. They are peering across the yard at the tall man, speaking to one another. They seem very, very interested in him. Looking sideways Sir Muso sees me, summons me with clicks of his fingers.

“Boy,” he says, “That man over there. Has he given you his name?”

I tell him no sir. Sir Muso’s face is in the shadows and he gives a low growl. He seems disappointed. He does not look at me once, waves me away, and with the shaking of his hand it is like he believes he has made me vanish with magic. He and Sir Shikitei continue to speak on. I cannot help but hear. Or I could, but I want to hear.

“It must be him,” says Sir Shikitei, “I know for certain that he was over in Ecchu only last month. Killed Hayashi Osedo, sought him out right in the hall of his school. It looks like him, what I heard: tall, the wild hair, wearing the rags of a masterless, crooked nose and poxmarks on his face…”

“Could it really be?”

“Musashi Miyamoto,” nods Sir Shikitei, “It must be.”

“No. It cannot be. Such a vagabond could not have cut down the Yoshioka school. Look at him.”

Across the yard the tall man is tying the lashes of thick straw sandals up his calves; winter boots for walking through snow. Boots like we all wear, not like a samurai’s which are all tasselled soft cords and wooden sole. He has his pack with him. He must be leaving.

“It is him.” says Sir Shikitei and he sounds certain.

Sir Muso scratches his chin, rolls his shoulders. The golden characters on the back of his jacket jiggle, “Then I must slay him.”

Sir Shikitei laughs, “Are you mad? Miyamoto killed fifty men in one night. Burnt the Yoshioka compound to the ground. The Yoshioka, Gonnosuke. Not peasants with sickles but the Yoshioka in Kyoto. He eradicated them surer than any plague.”

“Then so much greater the glory to take his head, no?”

Sir Shikitei says nothing. Sir Muso doesn’t like this.

“I am the master of the Hinomoto style,” he says, “I have faith in the Way. Victory is assured. Squire for me. I need your testament as witness.”

“No,” says Sir Shikitei, “I’ll not run that gambit. His temperament is well famed, and it is well famed as bestial. He’ll kill you and then he’ll kill me and then he’ll as like burn this whole inn down. Rape the women, and, and… There’s not a man in the country who could stop him.”

“He does not fill my heart with terror, he is only but over yonder,” says Sir Muso, “If you would but…”

But Sir Shikitei has heard enough. He turns away to leave and sees me there behind them.

“Insidious little spy.” he says, and slaps me in the face as he goes. Sir Muso follows him, and he does not go silently, still asking his friend, again and again.

I rub my cheek. The slap hurt. I look out across the yard.

The tall man they think is Musashi Miyamoto has gone.

***

Otsu, who everyone but she herself tells me I should call Sister, has hung the futon mattresses over a bamboo pole and she is beating the dust out of them. She has big shoulders for a girl – or she says she is a woman now at fourteen – and she can lash the broad-headed beater so hard and fast that the futon looks like smoke is coming out of it, like it is on fire. There is another beater and three other mattresses and without speaking she tells me to get to work.

I start. I smack and crack. Pwa pwa pwa goes the futon. I start to imagine that the wooden tool in my hands is a sword. We are on the roads and we hear lots from either end of the country. We have heard of Christians in the south, we have heard of earthquakes in the north and we have heard lots of Musashi Miyamoto.

Him, the masterless, the one that will not die. Kills all he wants, and what he wants to kill is the mightiest samurai he finds. Sir Shikitei said he killed fifty Yoshioka men those years ago, but I have heard from others that the real number was a hundred all armed with bows and guns, and Miyamoto cut the shots and the arrows from the air with his two swords, one in his left hand and one in his right.

Shling shling shling the swords, pwa pwa pwa the futon.

“Stop your larking.” says Otsu. Dust curls around her and she looks like an ogre. Someone will marry her, I heard Father say, and that man will find a mistress.

What a mistress is, I don’t know.

I hit the futons slower. Slower means concentration, or so everyone thinks. Otsu is satisfied. I think of the man I threw rocks at as I work, whether it was really Musashi or not. An even stranger game to play, if that truly was a man who once killed a hundred beneath a single moon.

Sir Muso comes back soon from within the halls. Sir Shikitei is not with him. He opens the chest without care of me or Otsu and looks in it and pulls out his big sword. The wood of its holder is bright and red and shines like the frozen stream, and he slides it into the sash of silk around his waist that is red too. Looks up then, sees me.

“You,” he says, “Horse boy.”

“Syce.” I say.

“Come. Squire for me. I have a head to take.”

“I apologise but he is unavailable, sir,” says Otsu, bowing politely, “And he has not much skill in-”

“Should I want your words, girl, I will tell you to speak,” says Sir Muso, “You. Boy. Go saddle my horse and ready yourself to ride.”

***

In the stable I throw the ropes beneath the belly of Sir Muso’s horse, lash them tight and the saddle is secured. Next I attach the wooden stirrups and the bridle and the reins, and Sir Muso watches me do it.

“How was he, in the night?” asks the samurai. He means the horse.

“Fine, I think,” I say, “Though I cannot say for certain. I was with you sir, in the sleeping hall, if you remember. He was fine in the morning.”

“His name is Ginfuu.” says Sir Muso, It means Silver Wind. It is a name like something out of a poem, an old poem. Horses near here have no names, or are perhaps called Black or Brown or Fat or Stubborn. Sir Muso though places a hand between Ginfuu’s eyes and there is love in his own.

“Sir,” I say, setting the cushion between the pommel and cantle, “What does squiring mean?”

He slides out his big sword still in its red holder and gives it to me, “It means hold this while I ride, and then my jacket whilst I fight. Then when we get back, you tell everyone what it is you saw. Tell them whose head it is and of the blow that claimed it.”

“You’re going after the tall man, sir?”

“We are, lad. We are.”

***

He follows the footprints in the snow, does Sir Muso, looking down from his saddle. There is no room on it for me, and so I have to sit on Ginfuu’s haunches and hold onto the cantle and the sword at the same time, bouncing around up and down, up and down, my feet without stirrups and kicking free and my face up against Sir Muso’s back. The gold letters there sewn thick, rubbing against my eyelid. They smell of the smoke of the dormitory hearth.

“The Hinomoto style,” I say, over the skwush skwush of Ginfuu’s hooves cantering in the snow, “Did you learn its methods from some secret old scroll?”

“Why do you think that?”

“That’s where all knowledge comes from.”

“What of teachers, have you not seen them?” says Sir Muso, “Of halls where they educate?”

“But where did the first teachers learn?”

“Very perceptive, lad,” says Sir Muso, and he turns in the saddle to look at me out of the corner of his eye, “I shall tell you the truth. The Hinomoto style is my style. I am its originator and its discoverer, and it was gifted to me not by a scroll but verbally by the god Hachiman himself. I fasted for two weeks before an old shrine deep in the forests of my realm, and then one night he came to me. He with his sceptre and his three faces, coalescing out of the stars and the branches and the ground itself. Glowed like fireflies glow. Said that I alone in this nation was worthy of his secrets, and that I was to go forth and spread them.”

The sun is bright through the trees, bright but cold. Above us there is a big bird, a hawk or an eagle or a kite, and it looks like he is floating.

“Do you understand, lad?” says Sir Muso, “You have the privilege of bearing witness to the Hinomoto style’s emergence. Hinomoto means origin of the day, as taught to me, and you are here at the origin of the day’s origins. Do you understand the significance of that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“When I take Miyamoto’s head... You must remember every stroke. You won’t get scared, will you?”

“No, sir.”

“You won’t close your eyes?”

“No, sir.”

“You are certain?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ahh, the glory!” shouts Sir Muso, and he kicks at Ginfuu with his heels and I hold on tight, “The glory that will be mine to take that savage’s head! They could not stop him in Kyoto and they could not stop him in Edo, but here he ends and here I begin!”

It is not long before the footprints lead us to the tall man. He is up ahead on the narrow trail, and all the dead branches of the trees are above him and us like a tunnel. We are on either ends of this tunnel and Sir Muso does not like this and kicks Ginfuu again and makes a noise like ‘heeeyeeeaaa’.

The tall man turns as we draw close. Sir Muso tugs on Ginfuu’s reins and stops the horse and drops down into the snow. I go down after him, and when I land I almost fall over. I have Sir Muso’s sword in my hands, and Sir Muso takes the handle of it and pulls it out, shwwwwwi goes the steel.

“Musashi Miyamoto!” he shouts, “Stand and fight! I am Gonnosuke Muso of the bloodline Fujiwara, disciple of the sword, heir of most holy Hachiman and wielder of his Way and I challenge you now to a duel!”

The tall man looks at Sir Muso, then at me, then back at Sir Muso. One long hiss of steam comes out from between his lips. Then he slides the pack from his shoulders, lets it fall into the snow.

“Ready yourself!” says Sir Muso.

It looks like Miyamoto is ready already. Sir Muso wriggles out of the gold-lettered jacket still holding his sword, hands it to me, then has to hand his sword over as well so that he can tie the long sleeves of his kimono up to free his arms. The tall man just stands there, no sword out yet, not worried about the thick winter clothes he is wearing.

“You are prepared?” says Sir Muso when he has taken his sword back.

Nothing but steam, that dragon’s mist. Face as still as a sleeping man’s.

“Then draw your weapon.” says Sir Muso.

Miyamoto slowly takes the big sword from his side. He keeps it in the holder. He puts it down upon his pack. He does the same with his little sword, then from amongst his things on the ground he pulls out a wooden sword. It is red wood and plain and dull, not shined like all Sir Muso’s things. It looks very weak compared to the steel of Sir Muso’s sword, which I look into as he holds it at his waist and can see my face pulled and stretched. This wooden sword looks like it would be split in moments but he holds it up, Miyamoto, with one hand and puts it between the samurai and himself.

He is ready.

“What is this?” says Sir Muso.

He is still ready, Miyamoto.

“Face me properly,” shouts sir Muso, “Draw your sword – both your swords! That’s your method, isn’t it? Face me with that, as you faced the Yoshioka!”

I have never seen samurai fight before. This is not how I imagined it. There is nothing but the two of them in the snow. I thought that they would bow and sit and think and be still for hours. Go like monks get with their calmness and then behave so proper, give names and bow again, but all there is is anger from Sir Muso as common as Father’s and the tall man is as level or as bored as when he dug the ice from the river for me.

Miyamoto holds his wooden sword steady.

“Do not jest with me!” says Sir Muso, “I’ll cut you down in moments. Take up your steel sword. Take it up now. Your last chance!”

Miyamoto’s eyes go wide, like they were when I threw stones at him. Wide and sightless. I realise I am still very close to Sir Muso, and I walk backwards, nearly trip in the snow, watch from a distance.

“You will be punished for this insult, then, damned of your own volition!”

Sir Muso steps forward, puts both hands on his sword, goes low and ready. The tip of his sword his almost touching Miyamoto’s, they are that close, and now the two of them are stuck to one another. Alone. I am not here, the horse is not here, the snow is not here. Are they scared? I do not know. Sir Muso’s sword is very sharp.

Miyamoto’s eyes move, meet Sir Muso’s, go back to their sightlessness. Sir Muso looking up at him. His hands wrap themselves again around the handle of his sword. Then he sees something, something I cannot. It is like Miyamoto is closer to him now.

“No,” says the samurai quietly, and his shoulders move, like he wants to stand, “No, I-”

But it is too late. Miyamoto goes forward and he draws his sword back and Sir Muso has barely moved when Miyamoto hits him so very hard. Sir Muso’s steel sword is turned up and away over Miyamoto’s shoulder, and the wooden sword comes around and smacks him on the side of the chest. I cannot believe that thin length of wood could hit so strongly. I hear the sounds of river ice fracturing and a big bit of spit comes out of his mouth and Sir Muso falls like there is nothing solid in him, just crumpling like clothes.

Miyamoto looks down at him for some time. There is still steam coming from Sir Muso’s mouth again and again and his body is making odd little nnnha nnnnha noises, but his open eyes see nothing.

Miyamoto looks up to me. My mouth is open. He turns away, goes to his pack, begins to replace his swords at his waist and take up his things once more.

“You moved your eyes.” I say, “You wanted to keep them still but I saw you, you looked at him when you hit him.”

If he cares he does not show it. He sets the straps on his shoulders. He turns and begins to walk away.

“Teach me.” I say, and before I can think I have dropped Sir Muso’s jacket and his bright red sword holder and I am running after Miyamoto. I stand in his way and he looks down at me. “Teach me the ways of the sword.”

He says nothing.

“Please,” I say, “Do you think I want to stay here? I hate horses. I hate their smell. He’s not my father, not my real one, they’re not my family. Teach me. Take me with you. I’ll follow, and I’ll gather your water for you, I’ll squire for you, I’ll do anything you ask and…”

I realise these are words that I have wanted to say for a long time and that there are tears in my eyes. There is irritation in his.

“Please!” I say.

He turns around and heads back to where Sir Muso is still lying. He picks up the steel sword and then he comes back and offers the handle to me. I take it. The sword is heavy, much too big for me, and the blade is wet with snow. He places my right hand up by the steel ring between blade and handle and my left down by the butt. Then he presses down upon the little and ring fingers of each hand and steps back.

There, his eyes and the jerk of his chin say, understand.

And he turns away and walks off.

“What?” I say, “No!”

I run and try and stand in his way and he pushes me aside even though I am holding the sword still. Twice more I try and twice more I fail.

“Please! Teacher! Master!”

All I can do is stand and watch his back as he walks off down the winter trail.

“Remember me!” I call to him, and it is all I can think to say, “My name is Mikinosuke, syce of the fourteenth stop of the Hokkoku road! Mikinosuke! Remember me!”

But Miyamoto is gone.

I rub my eyes and sniff and the backs of my hands get wet with nosewater. I turn around and remember I am not alone. Ginfuu has been watching, and he gives his heh-heh-heh sneeze. In the snow Sir Muso has begun kicking with his legs, little weak kicks like a baby’s, and his hands are wrapped around his chest. His breathing sounds awful.

“Help me… Help me…” he says over and over, his voice a whisper.

His sword is still in my hands.

The bells of the Gion temple toll the impermanence of all things...