Chapter Forty-Three: The Traveling Sword
"The sword is not the only tool of war."
"War is coming, Koshin. And it will not be a war that your ideals can win…a war against real evil that will tear the Empire apart. These are no longer peaceful times, wanderer…your honor cannot defend our clan. Or any other."
The shrine was nestled in the hills to the north of Kyuden Seppun, just beyond view of Rokugan's holiest site. It was dedicated to Bishamon, Fortune of Strength.
In times of peace, a few heimen might have visited, and even the occasional samurai would have turned his path to seek serenity and truth. But now, as the flames of war engulfed the Empire, and the heimen stayed home to pray while the samurai marched to fight and die.
"When real strength is most needed is when they choose to forsake it," Koshin said with a sarcastic smile to the Fortune's grim form. "How you must tire of the ways of men."
In the bamboo nearby, the sounds of mock combat echoed from tree to tree. Setting his swords aside, Koshin strode a few meters into the scattered sunlight of the forest to where his lone pupil continued his assault.
Ujirou looked little like he had when his mother had brought him to the ronin; his fine clothes were torn and disheveled, and the rain and sweat had begun to drive the whiteness from his dyed hair. The little samurai leapt and ducked in rapid motions, striking at the targets with a switch cut from a young bamboo tree.
Koshin called the drill 'Drawing the Threads,' and he had forced Ujirou through it for three days. Pieces of bamboo dangled from branches, rested in the ground…wherever the ronin could imagine. And for three days, Daidoji Ujirou had endured bruises, scratches and cuts across his body with every motion of the bamboo blades. He worked with two hands on one sword, a sword in either hand, or a single sword in one hand, earned calluses in days that many took weeks to gain.
"Stop now, Ujirou-san," the man said, sinking down to sit on the floor, "it will do no good to go any further today. After so long, you are just burning strength away."
The Daidoji almost collapsed at the very sound of his sensei's voice, but Ujirou's large eyes held no sign of defeat, "I can do more, Koshin-sensei… …please teach me more…"
Koshin rose, crossing his hands inside his weathered kimono. "Perform the drill flawlessly, Ujirou, and I will give you one more lesson today."
It had been many years since the warrior had watched a young man's heart rise. Seizing hold of his bamboo switch, the young Crane sprang back to the center of the forest, setting his feet aiming at the first target as he had done so many times before.
"Set yourself backwards, Ujirou-san," the sensei said with a smile, plopping himself down on a nearby forest rock. "On the battlefield, your enemy may come from any side." He appreciated the sour glance of his young apprentice, as the boy adjusted his stance to strike.
He had never had a student; he had seldom considered a life beyond his blades.
"What is the reason why we fight, Ujirou-san?" Koshin's voice was loud in the darkness, the single light of full night moon illuminating the forest's quiet glade. In his hands, the warrior held a long bamboo pole extended, his feet balanced on the edge of a small stone.
He had never placed his ideals in words, never considered his style or given it a name.
Ujirou stood facing his sensei, his katana held tightly in both hands. "To fight is to better ourselves and our world…to improve and better serve bushido." As he spoke, the sword's slender edge quivered slightly, as if the student's conviction resounded in the steel. "This is the first principle of Kouryo-no-Ken."
He had never had a path to walk; and he had always walked alone.
"One more time, Ujirou." Koshin's eyes were swift, observant, and not only for his student's sake. As the Daidoji learned, so too did his sensei, seeing things in the pure young footsteps that he had not found in the masters of the Clans. "Deliver the Fading Draw Thrust perfectly."
The Fading Draw was one of the most difficult techniques Koshin had ever invented; it took power and practice, and even then the move was difficult to use. From an iai position, the swordsman would retreat with his opposite foot, and at the same time, he would draw. Then, pivoting the blade, the rear foot would reverse while the blade was spun defensively, and then thrust with the blade turned or raised.
It was a move that earned scars and calluses, and Ujirou now sported both. In two weeks, the boy's skill had been tempered and hardened, his small hands and forearms bruised and torn from constant exertion, his muscles always aching from the hours at the fight. Koshin was not the kind of teacher to push a student beyond his desires…but Ujirou was not the kind of student to accept defeat.
The thrust snapped like the sleeve of an unarmed warrior, the blade shivering, frozen, in the air. Ujirou's hair hung down around his smiling face, a bead of sweat suspended on the side of his pale cheek.
"Your technique has improved…slightly," Koshin said as he suppressed a smile, trying to remember the simple words Toshimoko and Kashiwa had used to encourage him so many years ago. "Your chi is still unfocused, but that will be enough for today. We will improve tomorrow. Go and clean yourself up; it is time to eat."
The Daidoji bowed to his sensei, sheathing his sword with one smooth twist.
Even in the darkness of the forest, Koshin and his student could see the Great Clans' rising wars. As he sat atop the small hill that sheltered Bishamon from the wind and rain, the swordsman could see far to the west, where the fires still burned in the lands of the Lion Clan.
To the south, I suppose that fires are burning also. Koshin turned, his shining eyes considering Ujirou through narrow slits. Fires set by men like you, Ujirou.
"What do you know about war, Ujirou-san?" the question was loud against the silence of night, startling the child from his half-conscious seat. The Daidoji never tired of the strange musings of his sensei; though more often than not the answers seemed to slip away.
"I have studied war," he answered, drawing himself closer to the fire, his unkempt black hair hanging down in tangled knots. "My mother told me that a true samurai does not seek out conflict, but it he cannot avoid it, meets it with courage and determination to win. That is why he needs to be prepared to fight."
Koshin smiled, though the answer did little to ease his heart, "You are growing quickly. I hope that you will not forget your mother's wisdom when our training is done."
The boy pressed his hands together and bowed quite seriously, "I will not, Koshin-sensei."
"Strength is a dubious advantage to have, Ujirou, and you have not yet seen how dangerous it can be." The wanderer moved the add some more wood to the fire, returning to his seat and removing his swords, "We begin to seek strength to defeat our opponents, who in turn add to their own strengths to turn us away."
His voice became harsh and sad, "When faced with such power, is death the only answer?"
The Daidoji's face showed his confusion, and his voice was weak and uncertain. "Death in battle is honorable, sensei…"
"There is no shame in death, but there is a great tragedy in the taking of life. You have never taken a man's life, Ujirou…but I think that day will come too soon." His eyes slid down to the young man's body, already noticing the muscles forming over his thin little bones. "It takes more than skill or technique to be prepared for the enemy…"
"…You must train yourself to recognize what winning means."
"I do not understand, Koshin-sensei." Ujirou had no shame to his tone, and indeed there was nothing but the question showing in his fire-lit eyes.
The older man grinned, shaking his head with a turn of long hair, "Neither do I, Ujirou-san. I think that both of us still have a lot to learn about the nature of victory." With that, the swordsman turned back to watch the distant fires, trying not to remember the lives that he had torn apart…
"My name is Matsu Daiikyu, Kakita, and I will claim your head!"
The Lion lunged through the spear line, his flashing naginata cutting down two ashigaru soldiers as he did. Koshin felt the splatter of fresh blood along his bare face, and wondered idly where his kabuto had gone. The Crane bushi lowered his head, whirling a katana in his left hand.
"If you want me, Matsu, I am here," he said coldly, motioning the remaining soldiers away. The bushi had already killed four Lion in duels today, but against these odds, every Matsu or Ikoma that he removed could only delay the Crane's eventual retreat.
Daiikyu was not tall, but his muscles fairly groaned as he seized hold of his sword. Both men were young and angry; both had seen the last few years degenerate into murder and hatred between their clans. Now, they lowered themselves into ready stances, one man concentrating on his inner power, and the other seeking his inner rage.
Koshin knew in the Void how dangerous this opponent was; many of the Lion here had trained well in the art of the one on one duel. Their clan had prepared for this war a long time…and after focusing his energy four times in an hour, the Kakita could feel his strength sliding away.
"This is the end!" Daiikyu's voice cleared the air above the din, his blade sweeping out in a wide, trained motion.
The Kakita's sword caught him in the throat, slicing through the enemy's mempo as it flew, pulling out with a wave of blood. His arm tangled with the Lion's strike, turning the deadly edge and driving it to the ground. As the Matsu's body collapsed with hands shaking, Koshin retreated, hearing another roar above the din…
"Cousin, I am here!"
He did not have the strength to charge this newer, fresher opponent, so Kakita Koshin did the only thing he could. The Crane fell forward, striking his knees against the hard packed ground, hearing the whirl of a sword where his head had just been. At the same moment, his second sword whipped from its saya, slicing through an unseen gusoku, tearing through a soft stomach beneath.
Kakita Koshin felt the blood of his enemy, as he lay there, sword extended, eyes watching blankly as he watched Matsu Daiikyu die…
It had taken them longer than he had expected, Koshin remembered as he stared up into the night sky. Hitomi light shone down upon his sweat-shrouded face, but the bushi could take no solace in the moon's comforting light.
He had not thought of that moment in many years; part of him had not wanted to, and that part had helped him to forget. But now, the images of the Osari Plains and that desperate series of battles dominated his thoughts as if they were fresh as the midnight air. Koshin pulled himself up into a sitting position, taking great care not to stir the nearby boy.
There was someone waiting for him, by the tree Nikkan had planted there,
amidst the silence of the dead…
The Wind has Changed….