Chapter Fifty-One: The Eighth Master
"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In
the expert's, there are few."
- The Tao of Shinsei
Koshin's foot slid forward slowly, his toes grinding against the wooden floor. Yoshinoko remained standing straight and tall before him, her right hand dangling freely, as her left touched the saya of her sword.
Behind the two of them, a pair of doors slid open, drawing the attention of the ronin alone. Ikoma Miyaka's broad face was subdued and almost ashen, and around him armored ashigaru readied their yumi and spears, all of their barbs aimed at the heart of the masterless man.
"I cannot allow you to live, Koshin-san," the magistrate said, his voice grim and cold. "My honor is nothing compared to that of my family and my clan. Ikoma Makuto died a noble sacrifice to the family of Akodo Isaido…and this is where his story ends. I truly am sorry."
"But I am entitled to die as a warrior," the ronin asked Yoshinoko, "by a hail of arrows, or by your sword."
The Matsu nodded, a slight motion of an otherwise frozen face, "That is how it must be, Koshin."
He smiled. "It is enough."
The battle cry of the Matsu was like nothing he had experienced; like a wave of power it preceded Yoshinoko, shattering her enemy's concentration and poise. Lunging, the woman's sword slashed out and rang against his parry hard enough to stumble him, and her whole body followed close behind.
The impact of the samurai-ko slammed Koshin into the heavy wooden cell behind him, bruising his back as she reversed the arc of her sword. Hitting the ground with a sudden motion the ronin sprang off to one side as Yoshinoko's katana slashed through the wood, its edge cutting and shattering through seven wooden bars.
Hitting the ground running, Koshin blocked with both his blades. This time, it was the ronin's momentum driving the Matsu, driving her into the wall to the right of the ruined jail room, hitting fiercely enough to make the whole wall groan.
The punch was unexpected; it rattled him but did not real damage, giving her a single moment as his face was smashed wide. Yoshinoko struck again, and Koshin tasted blood at his lip was broken open, the powerful samurai-ko sending him crashing to the ground, his rolling form ripping through the unadorned shoji and spilling out into the early morning sun.
Koshin's body hit the stairs and then the ground beyond them, feeling his shirt tearing as he slid across the ground. When he stopped, the world was still moving, and the dull throb of a dawning concussion aching behind his poorly focused eyes.
She really is strong, he told himself as he drew himself up, watching as Yoshinoko opened the broken door. Before she stepped forward, Miyaka cried out to the archers and spearmen, sending them to ring the bushi in a wide circle, hedging him into the magistrate's walled garden, barring his passage from the locked door. I will have to watch more than just her sword.
"For what it is worth, I will regret this," Yoshinoko said loudly, preparing her katana for a thrust.
Wiping the blood from his cheek, Koshin narrowed his eyes against the ache of his forehead, focusing on his opponent again. The edges of armored gauntlets were visible on the Matsu's hands even with her long kimono, explaining some of the force behind those hands. With her gloves and fine armor the Lion was well protected, her whole body shielded from the bite of Koshin's blades.
It was a simple, effective defense; one that his Kouryo-no-Ken would have to break.
"I don't have any more words to speak with you, Yoshinoko-san," the swordsman answered without malice or fear. "Whatever you want to tell me, do so with your blades."
The Matsu style was based on a single, perfect principle: delivering an attack from a position of strength alone. Every thrust and cut was delivered using the whole body, yielding a final amount of damage that few other fighters could match.
Yoshinoko's driving thrust was just as Koshin expected; an arrow of power, built to penetrate his core. With Ukigumo the ronin pivoted, locked and deflected the tower of force, a tiny application of energy enough to turn it aside. This sort parry was a Mirumoto specialty against a single blade, but against Yoshinoko Koshin hesitated…
Against her, it was a feint.
Behind the sword was the samurai-ko, and she threw herself forward with a knee raised. The ronin lunged right back towards her, using his speed to match her as the pair rose. The Shiba sword rang against the Matsu's iron gauntlet, and her strike went horribly wide. Koshin drove his own leg into her armored stomach with all his momentum, slamming Yoshinoko to the ground with as her free hand seized him and dragged him behind.
It was something he had not expected.
The impact sent both combatants smashing to the ground. Koshin felt jarring blackness on the edge of his vision, and heard as echoing that resonated as their bodies bounced across the ground.
Through the pain came another kind of shouting, as Miyaka begin to order his soldiers, and instantly the ronin was on his feet again. Like a tiger, the ronin sprung towards the still-rising Yoshinoko, thrusting Ukigumo between the sheathes of her lamellar armor, driving the ancient sword home. The Matsu matched him, motion for motion, whirling and evading the deathblow even as it tore her mail away.
Her iron fist connected a second time as the warrior twisted, sending Koshin whirling, slamming to one knee on the ground. His katana raised immediately in a defensive motion, but even as he reacted, the swordsman saw that his opponent had made no motion to strike.
"You are fast," the man said simply, rising with no outward showing of pain or weakness. "Even in that armor…"
Staring down at her plain brown kimono, Yoshinoko smiled slightly, removing the rest of the ruined armor and tossing it aside. Taking a low, extended stance, the samurai-ko changed to a grimmer form of smile, the light of morning reflecting off her blade.
"We are even now, in both speed and encumbrance," she said softly. "We will end this battle now."
The two of them were standing a few feet apart from one another, wounds telling on both warriors as their intensity continued to rise. Koshin bled from his lip and his back was bruised and aching, and Yoshinoko mail was shattered, her breath still tense from the last motion of his blade.
Both of them knew that the time was done for fencing; now was the time to strike or to die. The ronin removed his soiled, torn kimono from his muscled arms slowly, letting the fabric hang around his waist. He could not risk the dangers of Ujirou coming upon all of this, or the dangers of continuing to dodge the heavy strikes of Yoshinoko's arm guards or her blade.
Their eyes met for an instant, both knowing the moment of the strike.
Dropping their heads, the two figures charged one another, the fury of tiger and dragon almost crackling in the stillness of the air. Beyond the two, the ashigaru and their master tensed in anticipation, knowing that this final impact would decide their place in this brutal duel.
Holding his blades inverted Koshin parried, passing Yoshinoko without even attempting a strike, guiding the fatal cut of her katana. As the sword struck the ground at such speed the steel bound and spanned cleanly, ringing loudly as the two passed side to side.
Whirling her body Yoshinoko instantly hurled the broken weapon, trusting her instincts to where her enemy would be. With his back turned, and his muscle concentrating on stopping his momentum, their was no way that the ronin would be able to swing his sword. The shining shard whirled through the air, its edge slicing through the light of dawn.
Yoshinoko's final effort soared through the air beneath her opponent as Koshin sprang, not looking, into the air. With his back turned the swordsman twisted like a dancer, his eyes at last meeting his opponent as he slashed down through the air.
The Matsu's right arm rose to ring out against Ukigumo's folded steel, the double plates barely holding back against the ancient steel of the blade. As his enemy's eyes widened, Koshin brought the blade of the Shiba sword down upon Rensei's weapon like a hammer, driving it down through iron and bone.
Koshin's momentum sheared Yoshinoko's hand off cleanly, and his plummet allowed the weapon to continue its fatal plunge. Steel slashed through flesh with the lightest of effort, seeming almost unnatural as the blade tore through her breast.
The attack opened the Matsu samurai-ko between the neck and the shoulder, driving deep into her chest and escaping from her side. Koshin struck the ground with closed eyes as the woman's blood began to blossom, but he dared not waste the moment of shock and surprise. As the Yoshinoko's body hit the ground the victor was suddenly upon the ashigaru archers, slashing their forearms and weapons, his speed and ferocity spoiling their desperate shots.
For some reason some men could not even fire, feeling their arms and fingers failing them in the presence of the warrior's blazing chi.
As they shattered and ran, the veil of ashigaru opened to reveal Ikoma Miyaka, his hand snapping down to his katana, the perfect mixture of control and panic lending a special speed to his large, unsteady hands. Their swords crossed in one moment of fury, the Ikoma screaming a shout of fury and pride.
A second later all was frozen, save for the shivers of a few startled soldiers who had been too terrified to run. Koshin held his sword extended, his bare back clearly showing the emblem of the Crane.
"Your family is safe, Ikoma Miyaka," Koshin said clearly, still holding his extended sword. "Makuto died as a samurai; his honor was cleansed."
With a last motion, the Ikoma smiled, sheathing his weapon and crashing to the ground.
Yoshinoko was still alive when he returned to her, a tremendous testimony to her body and her will. Blood like a spring welled up form inside her, as Koshin knelt beside her and laid her broken katana quietly at her side. He carried with him her golden mantle, laying it over her ruined chest and arm, doing what he could to cover the mortal wound.
"It was a great honor…" she managed through the terrible damage, that same calm fury still not draining from her eyes. "I only wish…that we had not been…enemies… …but friends."
"We are friends, Yoshinoko; hatred has no place in our lives upon the sword." the swordsman answered softly, lowering himself to his knees. "Your lessons will not be forgotten…nor will your deeds."
Yoshinoko smiled, a new dullness filling up her eyes. "I never wanted to do…more than serve them, Koshin…I did not…need honors or rewards. The battle, even here, in a small…village…was honor enough…" As she spoke, the ronin could hear the familiar voice of a dedicated warrior, one who never sought anything beyond the sword.
"I understand," he said after a moment, offering his words as a simple requiem, knowing that a warrior did not wish to hear the sounds of silence as she died. Yoshinoko had been a warrior too pure for the world that she had lived her life in; a lone lioness forced to be a member of a pride. As she eyes faded to emptiness the ronin did not draw the mantle over her, allowing her face to be warmed by the sun.
Matsu Yoshinoko died on one of the last warm days of summer, as the cool winds of autumn were just starting to flow. Her funeral was attended by many of her students and companions, who honored her with stories of valor and skill beyond mere empty words.
Kakita Koshin remained three days to see her body into the fire, lingering with Ujirou at the edge of the Lion's mournful pride. With a sad smile the ronin offered a last bow to the distant fire, then turned and started north along the road.
"She was a wonderful warrior, Ujirou-san; I wish things had been different. We both could have learned a lot from her, you know." The wanderer had left his hair loose to keep his face better hidden, his voice cold and level to choke back mournful tears. "I think that I have wandered for quite a while, Ujirou…"
He looked north to the mountains, "…and I think I know where we should
Time to Return…