With every burning gasp of cold, foggy air, Kin smelled the sea and tasted brine. He stood at the back of the leaking skiff, working the oar with both arms. Every stroke brought him closer to death, maybe his own. If the gods decided to be bastards, the death of his charge, the girl sitting straight-backed in the bow of the boat.
“Do you see the island, girl?” Kin demanded of his charge, grimacing at the ache in his left shoulder, a reminder of an arrow wound taken a year and a half ago at a tumbledown outpost. Silently, he cursed his wretched old body and the archer who had shot him.
“I see the island, Ojisan,” his charge said. “Shrouded in the midst.”
Kin squinted, his old eyes barely making out the island through the fog. Thank the gods, he had started worrying they rowed off course. He looked forward to giving his sore shoulder a brief respite.
“Can we have a fire?” the girl asked.
“After we prepare.”
The girl wore a mud-splattered kimono of indeterminate color, and her dark hair was shaved close to her scalp, like a monk or a nun. The haircut helped with lice and fleas and their disguise. Kin was glad for the strong scent of the sea that masked the miasma of sweat and muck that radiated off the girl. To be honest, he stunk even worse.
The boat gently ran aground. Kin jumped out, shivering when the ice-cold water licked his ankles. The girl entered the water and yelped. The combination of the yelp and the cold water made Kin glower in vexation. Together they pulled the boat through the breakers up onto the beach.
“Can we have a fire now, Ojisan?” the girl asked, teeth chattering, her arms across her chest.
“Later. Gather rocks,” Kin said, looking over the beach. He picked up a smooth, well-balanced stone that filled his palm and tossed it to the girl.
With the agility of youth, the girl plucked the rock from the air.“How many, Ojisan?”
“Four. Just like that one. Pile them over there,” Kin said, pointing to a large log as pale as bone high up the beach.
“That is a very unlucky number,” the girl said. “The death number.”
“The death of Okada Taro,” Kin said with a mirthless laugh.
While the girl gathered stones, Kin combed the beach for a driftwood sword. His hand rested on the worn grip of his katana, keeper of his warrior spirit, in its scabbard at his waist. Next to the katana was an empty scabbard for his wakizashi. He had lost the short sword, and along with it some of his pride, in the same battle he took the arrow wound. He must win the duel today with only a single blade, but he didn’t need the wakizashi to fight with two swords.
Okada Taro, the last of the treacherous scum who had betrayed and killed their lord, fought with a sword of prodigious length that was easily half again as long a katana. Kin needed a way to counter his despicable opponent’s reach advantage.
He picked up a gnarled piece of driftwood sturdy enough to absorb a few sword cuts. Holding it in both hands, he lifted it overhead and experimentally swung it down, scowling at the sharp pain in his shoulder. Too heavy. Tossing the useless stick aside, he rolled his stiff shoulder back and forth. That only made the joint grind. It seemed impossible that he could defeat his much younger opponent without his decrepit body failing him.
“Ojisan, I gathered the rocks,” the girl said, voice quavering. He still shivered.
“For a fire?”
“No, a longsword,” Kin said, pointing to the stick he just discarded. “Like that but lighter.”
Kin methodically tested each wooden sword the girl brought him. Many were too short, some were too heavy, and a few too spindly to absorb a single blow. Kin discarded the rejects into a pile for firewood until he narrowed the candidates down to two stout shafts. At the end of the trials, Kin’s shoulder throbbed, like the arrow still protruded from it.
“That’s enough,” he told the girl. “Start your fire.”
“I’ll bring the food too,” the girl said.
Kin nodded in agreement, and the girl ran to the skiff. Deciding on the lighter of the two wooden swords, a straight length of weatherbeaten wood nearly half again as long as his katana, he tossed the final reject into the pile.
Sitting around the fire, they enjoyed sweet rice cakes the girl had fetched from the boat. Eating like a starving man, Kin savored every delicious bite and licked gelatinous rice off his fingers. He hated going into battle on an empty stomach. He washed down the food with a single swig of sake from a small, scarred wooden flask he kept tucked inside his threadbare kimono. Experience taught him a drunk soldier was often a dead soldier.
A seagull swooped in low and landed on the beach a few feet from them. With a keen gaze, the bird watched the girl eat. When no handout was forthcoming, the bird hopped over to the girl and tried to snatch food from his hand. Making a disgusted face, the girl swung his free hand at the thief. Squawking balefully, the bird flew away. Impressed by the seagull’s brashness, Kin picked up a stick about the length of his forearm and, holding it like a brush, began sketching the bird in the sand.
“Will you be victorious, Ojisan?” the girl asked.
Without taking his gaze from his work, Kin replied. “You have doubts?”
“You told me Okada Taro is the greatest swordsman you have faced in a long time. Perhaps ever.”
“That’s true,” Kin said, carefully adding detail to the sand bird’s primary feathers. “I saw him fight a duel two years ago. He is strong and fast and young and fights with a giant sword. He’ll be a difficult opponent for an old man like me.”
“Your bad shoulder is bothering you?” the girl asked with concern.
Kin nodded. “My shoulder is stiff. Maybe it’s the cold.”
“Do you expect to die today?”
Kin heard the unspoken questions. What will that mean for me? A quick death? Imprisonment followed by seppuku? Although Kin hid it well, it made him sad that the girl lived a life plagued by such fears. It also forced him to consider the possibility that he would lose, failing to avenge his dead liege lord and protect his charge. Honor dictated that the girl, Okada Taro’s prize should he be victorious in the impending sword fight, remain on the island. Kin didn’t particularly care for honor, but the sad truth was nowhere was safer than by his side for the girl while a single traitor still lived.
“I’m already dead,” Kin said. “I’ve been dead every day since I entered Lord Hirota’s service and I will continue to be dead until he is avenged.”
“How does that help?” the girl asked.
“Even great warriors are rarely dead. They don’t give themselves fully to the service of their liege lords. That makes them hesitant. All duels come down to a decisive instant. Seizing the initiative requires putting oneself at risk. A mistake means death. I never hesitate, I’m already dead.”
The girl did not respond. Kin liked the silence that allowed him to lose himself in the drawing and forget his doubts. After putting the final flourishes on the bird’s beak, he looked up. The fog had thinned, and overhead the white disk of the sun shone through the gray clouds. He looked at his charge. The girl no longer shivered and his kimono was halfway dry.
“What do you think?” Kin asked, gesturing at the sand bird.
The girl moved to his side and looked at the sketch appraisingly. “You are as masterful as ever, Ojisan.”
“Allow me to teach you.”
“I’d rather you teach me the sword.”
Kin grunted disapprovingly and swept a hand across the sand, erasing the bird. “All things are transitory.”
“My desire – ”
“You forget who you are, girl,” Kin growled. The girl had taken her knife from her kimono and admired the single-edged blade. “Put that away.”
“I can help you.”
“You’ll earn a blistered butt unless you obey.”
Face flushing and dark eyes flashing with anger, the girl returned the knife to its sheath and shoved it through the sash of her kimono. “Yes, Ojisan.”
Eating another rice cake, Kin visualized the impending duel. His vile adversary would have the arrogance of a mighty warrior in his prime. He would see a tired, old man armed with a stick and underestimate him. A single savage blow to Okada Taro’s head would end the fight. At least, that was the hope.
“What will you do after the duel?” the girl asked.
“I haven’t put much thought into it,” Kin said honestly. Back when his lord had lived he had fought when his lord said fight and filled his free time with fencing practice and brushwork. The life of a samurai in the service of a warlord was all he knew.
“You don’t have to live the life of a ronin,” the girl said. “You can – ”
“Don’t dwell on your past. Look to your future. You’re skilled at calligraphy and painting. Under my tutelage, you can become a master. Your work will be renowned. Temples and monasteries and nunneries and even great lords will be your patrons. It will be a good life, a long life.”
The girl glared at him, hot anger still smoldering in her eyes. Unfazed, Kin returned the stare until the girl shifted her gaze to the water.
“Ojisan, I see a boat!” the girl shouted in excitement, jumping up and pointing.
Grunting, Kin shoved the remainder of the rice cake into his mouth. Scratching a flea bite on his shin, he looked to the water and saw a shape that might be a skiff gliding through the mist like an apparition. At last, he would find closure. Live or die, he didn’t care as long as the traitor fell to his sword and the girl survived.
Standing, Kin twice swung the wooden sword down from overhead in precise movements, intending the exercise to loosen his shoulder. Instead, it left him wincing in pain. Stupid old fool, he thought. He was too worn out for this fight, and that meant he would fail in his duties. The girl would die, and his lord would go unavenged. He clutched his wooden blade even tighter, maybe too tight.
“Put out the fire,” Kin said gruffly. “Then go sit on the log next to the rocks you collected.”
Kin trudged down the beach to near where the boat would run aground, squinting as he looked for tripping hazards. He kicked off his wooden sandals for better footing. The cold, wet sand stuck to the soles of his feet and nestled between his toes. Narrowing his eyes, he stared out over the water. The oarsman was a giant of a man just as expected. Surprisingly, he saw something in the bow of the skiff.
Stopping about halfway between the water and the log, Kin called. “Girl, come here.”
Setting his wooden sword on the ground, Kin drew his katana and thrust the blade into the sand. He carefully laid his scabbards next to the katana and retrieved the wooden sword. He couldn’t use the katana while wielding the driftwood sword, and he needed to be as fast as a striking egret to win the fight, so it was best to be unencumbered.
Breathing hard, the girl came to his side.
“What do you see?” Kin asked, pointing to the boat with the wooden sword.
“I see a skiff,” the girl said.
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “I see the oarsman, a big man. Probably Okada Taro. There’s a second man in the bow. He’s wearing dark robes, like a monk.”
Kin growled. “He brings an ally. That was not agreed upon.”
“We arrived several hours early. That’s cheating. You said so yourself when we set out this morning.”
“I fight with two swords. It’s not the same. Besides, I’m an old man,” Kin said, waving the girl off. “Go back to your log.”
“You don’t think it’s a warrior monk of Orochi?” the girl asked tremulously.
“We’ll know soon enough.”
“You’ll need help.”
“Back to your log.”
“But – ”
“I will blister your butt,” Kin said, hefting the driftwood sword threateningly.
“Yes, Ojisan,” the girl said sullenly.
As the boat neared, Kin strode toward the water, stopping a few feet from the highest waves. The sun broke through the dense clouds. Kin enjoyed the warmth, knowing this might be the last time he felt the sun against his skin. The respite against the cold was fleeting as a chill wind came off the water to blow a cloud in front of the fiery orb.
The oarsman jumped from the boat and pulled it up onto the beach. The smaller man, bald and wearing the ominous black robes of a monk of Orochi, remained seated in the skiff until it was on the beach. Then he stood and leaped lightly from the bow. The oarsman was indeed Okada Taro with his unusually long sword strapped across his broad back.
“A monk?” Kin called. “Afraid your spirit will be trapped here after I kill you?”
“Where is Hirota Midori?” Taro demanded.
Kin pointed up the beach to the girl on the log. Taro squinted then gave Kin a suspicious glare.
“That’s Hirota Midori? You think I’m a fool, old man?” Taro said, turning his gaze back to the girl. “She looks like a beggar. Maybe it’s just a clever disguise. I barely recognize you, the great Sato Kin, master of the two swords technique. You look like a rice farmer! You plan to fight me with a wooden sword!”
Laughing, Taro pointed at Kin. The monk snickered. Kin felt a flash of anger at their laughter that he suppressed, allowing his righteous rage to wash away his lingering doubt at the duel’s outcome and aftermath and everything else. All that was left was a dead man obligated to kill the double-crossing louse standing before him. He adjusted his grip on the wooden sword and sneered.
Abruptly, Taro stopped laughing, and the monk quickly followed suit. A cruel leer replaced the traitor’s gleeful smile.
“Lady Hirota, come down here,” Taro shouted.
Kin called over his shoulder. “Stay there.”
Kin raised his wooden sword, his shoulder throbbing and heart booming like a taiko drum.
“How do I know that’s Hirota Midori?” Taro asked.
“Kill me and you’ll find out,” Kin replied.
Taro chuckled. “You’re known for your trickery, old man. I knew this wouldn’t be a fair fight, so I’ve evened the odds. Besides, killing a grandfather armed with a wooden sword is beneath me.”
As if on cue, the monk pulled open his robes to reveal his chest decorated with a tattoo of a red eight-headed serpent, an image of the god Orochi. The monk began to chant. The Orochi tattoo undulated and a red mist erupted from monk’s chest. Eyes widening, Kin back-peddled. The red cloud grew in size until it completely obscured the monk and Okada Taro. Then the fog coalesced into a giant eight-headed serpent with red scales and jade eyes. All sixteen eyes stared at Kin.
“Chikushō,” Kin cursed, knowing he faced an avatar of Orochi.
Dropping his driftwood sword, he sprinted up the beach for his katana. Behind him came the many hisses of the eight-headed serpent.
“Run!” he screamed at his charge, the last survivor of a murdered noble family. He might fail to avenge Lord Hirota, but he must buy his lord’s daughter time to escape.
Grabbing his katana, Kin faced the abominable serpent. Eight heads with gaping maws large enough to swallow a man whole shot toward him. Two from above and two from along the sand and two from the right and two from the left. Even as a young man armed with two swords, he could not have easily fended off eight foes attacking simultaneously. He drew a deep breath, knowing, with a bone breaking sadness, all he could do was pray Midori avoided a painful demise. He was a worthless old man, no longer worthy of the title samurai. He failed her, just as he had failed her father.
The serpent halted in mid-strike, all eight heads shimmered and dissolved into red mist. Kin stared dumbfounded. What had happened? The mist retreated toward the water.
“Keep chanting!” Kin heard Okada Taro scream. “Yariman! I’m going to gut you.”
His throat constricted as he turned toward the shouting. Taro, his overlong sword held in both hands, bore down on Midori who had wandered far down the beach from the log and clutched a fist-sized rock.
Kin ran toward the two-faced swine and his charge, screaming. “Run, Midori!”
The girl stood her ground. Why didn’t she run, the little fool? Just as stubborn as her father. A year and a half ago at the tumbledown outpost, Lord Hirota had chosen to make his last stand. Stubbornness and pride had cost Lord Hirota his life. Now his daughter would die due to those same traits. Obstinate fools.
The monk’s chanting rang in Kin’s ears and was joined by angry hissing. In his peripheral vision, he saw snakeheads coming around from behind to surround him.
“Midori, run!” he screamed, his voice shrill. Calling upon all his reserves, he sprinted over the sand. He felt an overwhelming desire to protect Midori, more powerful than the devotion he had ever felt for her dead father.
Midori threw the rock. It soared through the air and out of Kin’s line of sight. Just as Orochi enveloped him, eight snakeheads rearing back to strike, the monk fell silent and the serpent dissolved into mist. Kin burst through the receding fog to come face-to-face with Taro.
The samurais circled each other. Kin saw the monk splayed in the sand near the water. Midori, dagger in hand, edged her way passed the duelists toward the monk. Kin was about to shout at her to take a skiff and row for the mainland when Taro attacked.
The longsword swept through the air with the speed of a striking falcon. Kin barely parried the blade in time. The blow shook his bones and his injured shoulder painfully tightened. With preternatural speed, the sword arced down from overhead. Kin scrambled to avoid the cut, cursing his opponent’s reach advantage.
Taro charged like an enraged boar, slashing his longsword at Kin. Darting out of the way, Kin lost his footing and tumbled to the ground. Keeping a hold of his sword, he rolled like an acrobat. Sand shot up his nostrils and into his mouth, but not his eyes for he was no fool and clenched those shut. He heard the longsword slam into the ground where his head had just been. Opening his apertures and spitting salty sand from his mouth, he came to a crouch with his sword held before him.
The longsword flashed downward. Kin deflected the blade and slashed at Taro’s ankles. The betrayer danced away to avoid the sword, allowing Kin time to stand. A shriek of rage and pain came from the direction of the water. Taro glanced toward the sound. Kin did not. He vaulted forward thrusting his katana. Taro back stepped, desperately trying to bring his sword to bear, but he was too slow. The katana pierced his right pectoral just below the shoulder. Blood blossomed.
Screaming, Taro dropped his longsword and backhanded Kin with his uninjured arm. The blow was like being hit with a club. Ears ringing, Kin stumbled backward and watched two treacherous dogs draw their wakizashi and bear down on him. He shook his head, his vision refocusing. He parried the short sword slashing toward his face. Retreating a step, he slashed his blade down from overhead, the katana opening Okada Taro from his left shoulder to his sternum. Gasping, the big samurai dropped to his knees then fell face down to the ground. His blood darkened the sand.
Breathing hard and ears still ringing, Kin took to a knee. He rubbed his aching head where Taro had struck him and spat blood. His bad shoulder stiffened into a tormenting knot he could barely move without great pain. Instead of wincing, he laughed and smiled. By the gods, he still had his edge. He wasn’t a useless old man yet. He felt a dark mantle lift from his shoulders at having performed his final service for Lord Hirota.
Nearby crying and screaming ended to his elation. Midori, he realized guiltily, needed him. Standing on wobbly legs, he turned toward the grief-stricken sound. Covered in blood and crying, the girl sat astride the monk, repeatedly stabbing him with her dagger. Kin drove his katana into the sand and stumbled to Midori’s side.
With every thrust of her dagger, the girl said between sobs. “My brother. My mother. My father.”
The monk’s chest was a bloody ruin, the tattoo of Orochi obliterated.
“Stop. Midori,” Kin said.
Without acknowledging him, she viciously stabbed the monk again. When she raised the dagger, he grabbed her by the wrist. She looked up, screaming wordlessly, her face a mask of rage and grief.
“It’s over, Midori,” he said. “They are avenged.”
Dropping the dagger, she stopped screaming and clutched him, crying and shaking against his chest. He hugged her, this last child of his dead lord, this girl who’d become like his little sister, the family he never had. Warm rays of sunlight caressed them and, after awhile, Midori stopped crying.
“Blue sky, Ojisan.”
He looked up. “I’m glad we survived to see it again.”
Kin helped his charge wash off the blood in the ocean. Then he started a fire and made her sit close to it. He sat down across from her, carefully cleaning the blood from his katana with a strip of cloth torn from Okada Taro’s kimono.
“You’re right,” Midori said.
Kin questioningly grunted as he looked down the length of the blade to ensure not a drop of blood or a grain of sand marred the gleaming surface.
“You said it’s over. You’re right. My family is avenged.”
“Good,” Kin said, lowering his katana and looking at his charge. “What do you want to do with your life?”
“Become an artist, maybe,” Midori said and radiantly smiled. She looked every bit a 13-year-old girl. “Maybe I’ll convince you to teach me the sword. I’ve heard you claim fencing and brushwork go hand-in-hand.”
“That’s true,” Kin said. “But, an artist doesn’t need to know how to fight. Only a samurai does.”
“Teach me the sword, and I will pursue art.”
“Just as stubborn as your father,” Kin said, standing. “You swear upon your ancestors to pursue art?”
“I do, Ojisan,” she said without hesitation.
He picked the scabbard up off the sand and slid his katana into it. “Come on then.”
He and Midori marched across the beach to his fallen foe. The corpse still clutched the wakizashi. Kneeling, Kin pried the short sword free.
He offered the blade to Midori. “You’ll need to build up your strength before you can wield a katana.”
“Thank you, Ojisan,” she said, bowing her head respectfully as she took the wakizashi.
Dan Rice writes speculative fiction while not slaving away at the 9 to 5 or entertaining wee lads.
He enjoys the writing process. All his fiction to date firmly falls into sci-fi and fantasy. He has seven published short stories to his name. Most recently, his science fiction sort story The Future of our Prosperity appeared in Bewildering Stories(http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue747/blurb.html).
You can find a list of his published works and recommendations on tips he has used to improve his writing at https://www.danscifi.com/. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanRiceWrites.