Fall of the Soga

By Topher Jones

10th day of the 1st month of the 1st year of the Ninji Era (1240 A.D.)

Oshima Bay—Shikoku Island—Japan


In the dead of night, in the churning waves of a windswept bay, the sole surviving warship of the Soga pitched and rolled, floating in a space between two worlds.
The newly-risen moon was a day past full. Its beams pierced the storm clouds, painting the hull with a silvery luminescence. On the mainsail a crimson butterfly snapped in the wind – the insignia of the Soga clan, once proud guardians of the inland sea, but now mere renegades teetering on the verge of extinction.
On the stern, a man stood perched like a hawk, gazing down with profound sorrow at his pitiful band of exhausted samurai who lay slumped against the bulkheads or supine on the sodden planking, dazed and slack-jawed from the agony of their wounds. His name was Soga Jiro Yoshishige, Steward of Iyo Province and Lord of the Soga clan. He stood tall and proud in a stubborn attempt to lend his men courage and hope. But in fact he was fatigued to the very marrow of his bones. He was covered with bruises and shallow wounds too numerous to count. Plum-coloured bags of sleeplessness underscored his eyes and his skin was goose-pimpled from the sea-spray soaking through his armour.
A sudden movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention and he glanced out to sea. A crow was gliding just over the cresting waves through the cold drizzle. A sliver of lightning cracked wicked and sharp across the clouds, lighting the waters below, and the carrion bird pulled in its wings, swooped downwards and alighted on a floating, bloated corpse of a warrior riddled with arrow shafts. The crow sank in its talons and began pecking at the exposed flesh.
Lord Soga grimaced at the sight and felt a sharp a pang of grief. It’s Takagaki, he realized, recognizing the dead man as a once loyal retainer and comrade in arms. He’d seen him take an arrow in the eye and fall overboard clutching at the shaft. He deserved a better death.
He picked up his giant war bow, plucked one of the few remaining arrows in his quiver, notched it to his beeswax-coated bowstring and waited patiently for the next lightning bolt. He didn’t have to wait long. A series of three rapid strikes split the sky, and in one fluid motion he drew hard against his pursed lips and released with a high-pitched twang. The fletching spun the shaft and the arrow hummed through the salty mist and skewered the carrion bird with a squawk and a puff of black feathers.
He heaved a sigh and bowed his head in tribute to the floating corpse. We’ll be joining you soon enough Takagaki, he thought miserably. There’s no way to escape our fate. Not this time.
He set down his bow and turned his gaze across the bay to his enemy. A dozen sekibune of the Akechi clan – low, sleek ships that could carry fifty warriors each – blockaded the mouth of the bay. The battle-lanterns on their prows flickered and danced like fireflies over a river in mid-summer. He turned around walked to the opposite rail and scanned the shoreline. Several burnt-out husks of his once proud fleet glowed a dull red, like the embers of abandoned campfires. In the faint red light he could see the bloated bodies of his warriors clogging the surf, undulating in the suck and pull of the tide. Hundreds more Akechi samurai were camped out on the shore, cutting off any escape route by land and waiting for dawn and victory. Their jeers faintly reached his ears through the roar of the mounting storm. At first light the enemy ships would come to board them with hundreds of hardened warriors. And he had only twenty samurai that still lived, half of which would not last the night.
He let his face drop into his hands.
How did it come to this?
It seemed to him it was just yesterday that his glorious army-- famous for having the best archers in all of Japan--was galloping out of his fief in Iyo province, like an army of asuras off to battle the demon enemies of Buddhist Law. The entire population of the capital had lined the streets and cheered the thousands of seemingly invincible warriors as they rode past, resplendent in their shining lacquered armor. But they had been overwhelmed by the unexpected vastly superior numbers of the Shogun’s forces. Chased from their territory, they’d been hounded for nearly two weeks, fighting desperate rear-guard clashes until finally as a last resort they’d fled to sea in his fleet of six large Chinese-built warships. In the end they’d been trapped in this bay off the inland sea of Japan. Here they’d made a valiant final stand. But in the last couple days five of his six ships had been overrun and burned.
A debilitating fear clawed at his stomach. Not fear of death. Not even fear of shame or cowardice. He feared for the fate of his clan which had ruled the waves of the inland sea for generations. His knees trembled as the flame of hope in his breast that had always seen him through any adversity was extinguished in the rain and sea-spray.
Suddenly his gloom was truncated by a gust of pure divine sound. It took him a moment to realize from where it came but then he understood and he took a deep shuddering breath to reign in his emotions. The singing voice of the Lady Soga was drifting up from below decks, like a boon from the Goddess, accompanied by the haunting sound of her lute, dispelling the death-like gloom. The men on deck sighed windily, as though they were babes again wrapped in their mothers’ silken kimonos, and Lord Soga closed his eyes and let his wife’s lilting voice wash over him, soft as summer rain. She was huddled aft in his cabin with their two children: Ukiyo, a graceful girl of seven years, and their son Gentaro, who was four. She was singing her boundless love to her husband above, and her infinite gratitude to the men who had protected her and her loved ones to the bitter end. She was singing the story of the mighty struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans a century earlier:
He who is proud is not so for long,
Like a passing dream on a night in spring.
He who is brave is finally destroyed,
To be no more than dust before the wind.
The realization hit him that this would be the last time he would hear her famous singing voice, and the thought pierced him to the core. Like a swallow soaring over a bridge, he used to complement her. Like a fish leaping out of water. For the first time in his adult life, tears streamed down the crags of his face, and the samurai on deck who were awake stared up at him in amazement - the legend was that he’d not shed a tear in his entire life, even as a baby.
He wiped his face with his forearm and turned his attention to a huge figure of a samurai standing below just below him. The man was pretending not to have noticed his lord’s tears, so as not to shame him. Instead, he stared at the silhouettes of the enemy ships bobbing on the rough seas in the distance, his gaze animated by a confident intellect. He was Kono Chikago-no-zenji Muneshige, and he was one of the most famous warriors in all Japan. The common people called him the Archer Saint of the Soga. A head taller than average, he had a hard-edged face which seemed forged in the heat of battle, an arched nose like the beak of a hunting falcon and powerfully thewed forearms covered with scars – some long-ago healed and some recently acquired that were purple and swollen. He wore armor of black and gold lacquer plates laced together with silk, and slung over his shoulder was his famous nodachi - a huge sword almost as long as he was tall, with a keen edge chipped and battered after the furious battles of last few weeks. The weapon leant him a considerable notoriety, for Nodachi were rarely seen - only a man of prodigious stature and stupendous strength such as Muneshige could wield one. He hadn’t slept for days and his father had died in the previous day’s fighting, yet Lord Soga could see no trace of tiredness or grief in his eyes.
If it wasn’t for him, thought Lord Soga, we’d all be dead already. He is the best of us - perhaps the greatest samurai in this Land of the Gods. But now I must send him away…I wonder if he'll obey? He’s always spoken of his dream of fighting and dying gloriously by my side.
‘Muneshige!’ he cried at the top of his voice, so he could be heard over the howling storm winds.
‘Hai!’ responded the Soga champion and the samurai jumped up nimbly and knelt in front of his lord.
Lord Soga lowered his voice. ‘You must get my son away. Our clan must not be wiped out forever.’
Muneshige gave a start of surprise and went as pale as the moon. ‘But my lord, I will never leave--’
‘You will do as I say!’ Lord Soga hissed in a sterner tone than he had ever used with his dearest friend. ‘You must get away with the boy.’

********************

The storm abated at dawn, calmed by the arrival of the sun goddess on the horizon. The sekibune of the Akechi clan were packed to the brim with scores of heavily armed and armored samurai. Each ship flew a large fluttering green banner inscribed with the Akechi insignia - five sword cuts within a circle. The throbbing beat of their war drums reverberated across the bay, and the rows of oars of the lead ship rose and fell like the beating wings of a bird of prey preparing to take to flight. ‘Akechiii!’ screamed the samurai on the beach in support of their comrades and the raiding boats glided towards the solitary Soga warship, like so many sharks moving in for the kill.
Onboard the Soga flagship not a word was uttered a word in response; the only sound was the rippling and snapping of the sails in the brisk wind. Lord Soga and Muneshige stood tall and proud on the bow, like a pair of barbarian-quelling heroes from the ballads come to life. Both wore their famous helmets - Lord Soga’s topped with a pair of crimson-lacquered butterfly wings, and Muneshige’s crested by a golden catfish tail. The dozen Soga samurai who could still fight stood behind them at the ready, their armor and spearheads painted crimson by the oblique rays of the newly-risen sun. To a man they knew they would soon be dead, but they stood as still and expressionless as statues. Each had written his death poem and placed it inside his perfumed helmet in case the enemy took his head.
The sekibune closed within arrow distance and the Soga warrior readied their bows. The sun sparkled on polished armor of the Akechi, half-blinding the pitiful band of defenders on the warship. Lord Soga shielded his eyes with one hand and caught sight of the enemy commander standing on the prow of the second raiding boat. Lord Akechi Yasutoki, the son of the Vice-regent and commander of the Akechi, was easily recognizable in his audacious buffalo-horned helmet and blood-red armor. Amazingly, he was still just a boy. But despite being just sixteen years of age, he had the powerful shoulders and stout limbs of a man ten years his senior, and was already a famous swordsman -- a natural killer who’d slain many samurai possessing many times his experience and reputation.
Lord Soga summoned his deepest reserve of courage, turned his head and caught Muneshige in his gaze. ‘You will leave me to fight on alone,’ he said. ‘The survival of our clan is in your hands.’
Muneshige hesitated, but his deep love for the man yielded to his sense of duty. ‘I hear and obey lord.’
They stared into each other’s eyes with profound emotion, until Lord Soga whispered: ‘Though today I die, the Soga will live for ten thousand years.’
Muneshige blinked away the hot tears that filled his eyes and nodded curtly, and they turned and drew their stout war bows together. Lord Soga leaned back, aimed at the sky and fired a ceremonial arrow with a bulbous whistling perforated arrowhead to alert the Gods to the deeds of valor about to be performed. The arrow arced over the approaching Akechi boats, shrieking its battle cry, and Muneshige took aim at the commander of the first Akechi ship and let fly. The arrow flashed through the morning air and struck hard and deep into the Akechi captain’s shoulder. The force of the impact spun the stricken warrior around and he fell off the prow screaming. He splashed into the water and his heavy armor quickly sucked him down.
‘Sogaa!’ shrieked the Soga samurai, and they loosed their arrows as well. Most flew true and hit their mark, but the Akechi were far too many. Lord Soga notched another arrow and fired at Lord Akechi. The shaft whizzed past him, just barely missing, but the boy seemed completely oblivious to tempting target he made. Muneshige fired another arrow which ricocheted off his helmet and the massive youth cursed and spat.
‘Fire the ship!’ the boy commander shrieked in his high-pitched voice, and his samurai in the lead boats immediately fit fire arrows to their bowstrings and dipped them into braziers, setting alight tufts of unravelled hemp rope soaked with pitch tied behind the arrowheads. They leaned back, pointed their bows at the brilliant morning clouds and loosed as one. The speeding shafts traced arcs of fire across the sky, rained down onto the Soga ship and set the decking aflame. Akechi laughed gaily, like a boy who’d just set off a firecracker, and then let out a deeper, more mature whoop of pure battle-lust as the flames raced up the masts and sails.

The Soga men dropped their bows on deck with a clatter and grabbed buckets to douse the blaze, giving the Akechi ships a chance to close in safely. The Akechi reached out with barbed poles, pulled their raiding boats alongside the larger ship, and threw grappling hooks up over the railing. The iron hooks bit into the wooden deck and the Soga men abandoned the fires to hack at the ropes with axes, but again they were too few – dozens of Akechi samurai were already climbing up the sides of the warship like crabs and vaulting over the railings.
The boy-warrior sprang onto the ship and landed with a bang on deck. ‘I am he!’ he bellowed so loudly than even samurai fighting to the death paused to gape at the magnificent crimson warrior. ‘Akechi Yasutoki! Son of the vice-regent! Known to the very children in the streets these days as the top blade in the land! Take my head if you can!’ He drew his sword slowly and regarded the enemy with a smile of supreme arrogance.
A tremulous silence prevailed until two Soga vassals mastered their fear, shrieked their battle cries and rushed him with their swords held high. Akechi’s blade whickered in flight and flashed in a blur of light, slicing the first one across his exposed throat, half-severing his neck. He dodged the second warrior’s slash and stabbed up under the Soga warrior’s breastplate, disemboweling him. The rest of the Soga men attacked immediately and fierce hand-to-hand dueling was joined. A pair of Akechi samurai slashed wildly at Lord Soga. He parried desperately and was in trouble until Muneshige’s nodachi flashed in a great arc, severing one man’s sword hand, and Lord Soga counterattacked with a backslash, slicing the other’s thigh open to the bone. The fight degenerated into a hideous spectacle of despairing parries and furious lunges. A chaos of flashing blades, grappling and stabbing clumps of bodies. No glory and bravery here, just men crying and clutching severed hands and mortal cuts gushing blood.
Muneshige caught sight of young Akechi. ‘Fight me, coward!’ he cried. He’d been praying for a chance to kill this arrogant boy-samurai. Akechi spun around and regarded Muneshige with a maniacal grin on his handsome, child-like face.
‘Muneshige hold!’ cried Lord Soga and frantically beckoned his frustrated champion to follow him. ‘After me!’
Muneshige wavered, fighting his overwhelming desire to rush the bigheaded young pup, but then he willed himself away with a massive effort and followed his lord in a run aft towards the cabin under the quarterdeck where Lady Soga and the children were hidden. As they ran aft, they heard the keening threnody of a female scream and Lord Soga’s bowels churned and his legs went so weak he thought they’d fail him.
He realized Lady Soga had panicked, ran up the stairs with her children in tow and thrown open the hatch. She’d screamed at the sight of yet another Akechi boat arriving to board the ship just below. Her cry drew the attention of the enemy samurai, who already had their bows at the ready. Lord Soga watched helplessly as his wife and daughter were pierced with a shower of arrows – one going completely through Lady Soga’s neck. The stricken mother and daughter tumbled backwards down the stairs back into the cabin and the boy climbed back down after his mother.
Lord Soga and Muneshige rushed down the stairs, almost slipping on the blood, and Lord Soga let out a wail of anguish at the terrible sight. Gods no, he cried inwardly. No no no! His broken wife stared at up him wide-eyed and choking. Her mouth moved soundlessly and a bloody froth foamed from her nostrils. His son Gentaro stood dumbstruck, sucking on his finger, his young mind unable to grasp what was happening. As if in a nightmare, Lord Soga turned his gaze to his daughter Ukiyo, who sat in a steadily spreading blood pool, fingering the arrow shaft protruding from her stomach. The pretty girl hummed a nursery tune and rocked back and forth in shock as her mother’s chokes became weaker and then seized altogether.
The rising hot and sting of Lord Soga’s stomach juices scalded his throat and the despair was so unsupportable it was all he could do not to drop to his knees and plunge his sword into his own abdomen to end the horror. But not just yet! Not while his son Gentaro still had a chance, however small. He composed himself with a supreme act of will, strode across the pool of blood to stand over his daughter and steeled himself to relieve her of her agony.
His sword flashed and Ukiyo’s brief life was extinguished.
‘We go now!’ he yelled, insane grief in his voice. He shrieked an inhuman battle cry, bounded up the stairs and crashed into three enemy samurai. Munishige bent over and picked up Gentaro with one hand and threw him over his shoulder and ran up after his lord. Lord Soga’s bravery afforded Muneshige a chance to squeeze by and run towards the cargo hold with Gentaro. Muneshige glanced back over his shoulder to find his lord had already slain two of the enemy and was dispatching the third. But then the crimson red figure of Lord Akechi spotted his adversary, and before Muneshige could notice him, the boy warrior ran past with his blood-caked blade at the ready.
‘Lord!’ screamed Muneshige. ‘Behind you!’
The warning came too late. Like a striking adder the boy-warrior thrust the point of his blade through a gap in the back of Lord Soga’s armor and slowly forced the sword clean through his torso. The powerful youth laughed into the dying man’s ear and gave a jerking crank to the hilt to increase his victim’s agony. Lord Soga grabbed the blade protruding from his chest, half severing his fingers and cutting his palms to the sinews. He struggled mightily before his strength melted into nothingness and he crashed facedown onto the deck.
And so died Jiro Yoshishige, Eighth Lord of the Soga clan.

Muneshige choked back the gall in his throat and it took his entire lifetime of training and discipline not to drop the boy and rush Akechi. ‘Do as he ordered!’ he cursed himself and he grit his teeth, shook his tears from his eyes, took a firmer grip on Gentaro, turned away and continued his dash towards the cargo hold. An Akechi samurai spotted him and came rushing at them. With his free hand Muneshige drew his giant nodachi from over his shoulder, blocked the Akechi vassal’s overhead slash with the flat of the blade and unbalanced the man with a swift kick to his ankle. The samurai slipped on the slimy film of blood and gore on the deck and crashed down heavily on his back. Muneshige sank the point of his blade into the fallen man’s throat and quickly yanked it out; bringing forth a hissing fountain of blood that splashed his armor and Gentaro’s legs.
He continued his run forward, leaving bloody footprints in his wake, zigzagging through flames and smoke and pairs of dueling samurai until he reached the door to the cargo hold. He threw it open with a bang and ran down a wooden ramp to find the frantically neighing horses of the Soga samurai. Muneshige clutched the boy to his chest, mounted his jet-black steed in one smooth motion, kicked his heels into its flanks, galloped up the ramp and burst out on deck. A couple of startled Akechi samurai dived aside as the magnificent warhorse clattered past.
Lord Akechi heard the clacking hoof beats and looked up in surprise, notched an arrow just as Muneshige launched the horse over the railings, pulled the bow taut in a flash and loosed. The arrow found its mark, piercing Muneshige’s armor and burying into a rib. Blood and lymph spurted from the wound as the samurai, horse and boy plunged into the rough ocean with a giant splash. The horse recovered with a frightened whinny and started to swim, paddling bravely through the foaming waves towards the beach, its hooves frantically churning underneath.
‘Kill them!’ Lord Akechi shrieked in voice hysterical with blood-lust and a split-second later a flurry of arrows plunked into the frothy waters, barely missing them. The horse swam out of arrow range and the crimson samurai howled his frustration as he ran across the deck and leapt over the side of the junk back into his raiding boat.
‘Back to the oars!’ he screamed, and a dozen samurai jumped in after him. ‘Signal the men on the beach!’ He knocked one of his men aside and grabbed an oar and rowed with long, powerful strokes, the other oarsmen struggling to keep up with his pace. ‘He has the boy!’ Akechi yelled to urge them on. ‘He has the heir!’
Muneshige willed away the excruciating pain of the arrow in his side, glanced back and grimaced at the sight of several of his clansmen jumping in full armor from the burning ship into the waves, preferring to drown themselves rather than fall into enemy hands. Then through the sea spray he caught sight of Lord Akechi in his boat and even from that distance could see the exquisite rage on his face.
‘Row harder!’ Akechi squealed at his men in rabid frustration. ‘Harder, by all the gods and buddhas!’
Muneshige spurred his horse out of the water, his horse throwing up plumes of hoof-tossed sand. The surprised Achechi samurai scrambled off the beach for their mounts. He managed to find the path that led to the mountains just as Lord Akechi reached the shore. The Soga clan champion whipped his tired mount into a full gallop and took a firmer grip on Gentaro, who was perched on the saddle in front, shielded from any arrows that might be shot from behind.
‘Hachiman give me strength!’ Muneshige entreated the god of war as they galloped, gritting his teeth against the throbbing pain of the arrow still lodged shallowly in his side. They will not take the boy!
He glanced back and saw that one Akechi samurai on an armored warhorse had taken up the chase much quicker than his fellows and was closing on them; the gap between the two magnificent steeds was narrowing quickly.
Muneshige clenched his jaw in determination. I’ve spent my whole life traveling the way of the horse and bow. No Akechi pig will drive me from that path!

He reined in his horse and his perfectly-trained mount came to an abrupt halt. He grabbed his long composite bow from his back with his left hand while drawing an arrow with from his quiver at his waist with his right. He clipped the reins to a hook on his breastplate, simultaneously reared up his horse and spun it around as he fitted the arrow the bowstring, drew the bow to its utmost limit and, screaming in pain, let the heavy armor-piercing arrow fly. The hawk feather fletching spun the oak shaft and the arrow hummed towards the onrushing Akechi samurai. Muneshige took the reins back in his hand and yanked them sideways, wheeled his mount back around and started to gallop away just as the arrow thumped into the enemy horses’ chest. The dragon’s tongue arrowhead pierced the horse’s lacquered armor and sank deep into the thumping heart. The beast stopped dead in its tracks and cartwheeled haunches over head, sending the rider hurtling through the air to break like a toy doll against a pine tree.
The sole surviving samurai of the once mighty Soga clan galloped on towards the beckoning peak of Stone Hammer mountain and the safety of the dense pine forests that blanketed its slopes.

By the time the sun goddess had reached her zenith, Muneshige had entered the foothills and was cantering slowly up a lush green valley. Mist smoked around the horse’s knees. He had been forced to slow to a trot, for he had driven his horse too hard – the beast’s eyes were bloodshot and wild and dried white lather speckled its heaving flanks. He felt the horse limping, turned in the saddle and saw that the horse had also been hit by an arrow in a haunch. He patted and stroked its mane, and leaned forward to whisper in the stallion’s ear to comfort the animal. He’ll be dead within the hour, he realized. Not that I’m much better off. He was at the very limits of his strength; the arrow in his side throbbed with life-ebbing pain and blood flowed freely down his side, soaking his bearskin saddle-blanket. He decided he had to lighten his load to stay conscious. Still in the saddle, he took off his helmet and blood-soaked armor, and grunting and moaning in agony, reluctantly cast them away deep in the trees on the side of the path.
His heart jumped at the sound of the sudden echo of hoof beats down the valley, not far behind, and he was not at all surprised; Akechi would never give up the chase until little Gentaro was dead. ‘They’ll be on us soon,’ he mumbled to himself, his words slurred like a drunkard’s.
Gentaro heard the samurai’s voice and came out of a fitful sleep and whimpered as the fear and shock rushed back. Muneshige looked down at him, and sight of the familiar face above seemed to stop a wail of terror from escaping Gentaro’s lips. Muneshige was Gentaro's best friend as well as his teacher of the way of the samurai. Muneshige had presented him with his first bow and wooden practice sword, with which he’d slept every night. He looked as if wanted to say something to Muneshige about a horrible nightmare he’d just had, but then drifted away again from shock and exhaustion.
Muneshige began to despair. He knew if he left the path and tried to hide, the Akechi riders would see the lack of hoof prints and find them. But then he saw a small wooden gate on the side of the path that was painted vermillion orange, and he realized a shrine that housed a local god was hidden back in the trees. He made his decision in an instant and dismounted gingerly, a low groan of agony escaping his cracked lips. He reached down and broke off the arrow shaft sticking out of his side to try to ease the pain of the wound, but the action had the opposite effect. With a moan he sank to his knees and started to lose consciousness, but a whimper from the boy in the saddle brought him back from the edge of a black void. Gasping with the effort, he stood and lifted the half-conscious boy out of the saddle, carried him through a succession of orange gates and up an overgrown path lit by shafts of the afternoon sun slicing through the thick pine forest. He entered the dark doorway of the little shrine and fumbled around in the murky darkness until he found a tiny alcove underneath the altar. He placed his blood-soaked saddle blanket inside, laid the boy on it, and folded the ends of the blanket over him. He hurried back to his horse with one hand dragging a tree branch behind him to cover his tracks. The other hand he kept pressed to his wound to keep his blood from dripping on the path. He heard the rising crescendo of hoof beats and urgent shouts just behind the previous bend in the road and quickly mounted his horse with a scream that was half-pain, half-defiance.
‘Come on!’ he hollered with the last of his energy. ‘Come and take the head of Kono Chikugo-no-zenji Muneshige, if you cowards dare try!’ He dug his heels in the flanks of his dying horse and galloped away, certain he would be dead within minutes.
He didn’t care if the distraction gave the boy half a chance.


********************

Night fell with a heavy chill, and the wind howled a lament through the lofty pines, blowing tears of dew off the sweet-smelling needles.
Gentaro stayed hidden in the blackness under the altar, too frightened to move. He’d cried his eyes out when he had first woken from his stupor, but now just sat with the eerie calm of a child in shock. The only thing he could see in the darkness was a vertical sliver of moonlight coming through the crack in the door. He stared at it in a kind of trance, his throat parched with thirst and his stomach clenched in hunger.
He thought he heard a faint human voice outside and quailed in dread. He listened carefully with his keen young ears for a while, but heard only the sounds of nature: a deer bleating deep in the forest; a fox scuttling across the underbrush; a bird crying out in sorrow, as if it had recalled something better left forgotten. He relaxed, but then he heard the distinct sound of human footsteps outside and his tiny body went rigid in fear. The door slid open with a crash and Gen stared in exquisite horror at a giant horned figure silhouetted against the moonlight in the doorway.
An oni devil! he thought in rising panic. He bit back a startled cry and pressed himself as far back as he could into the alcove and pulled the edges of the bearskin around him. He’d heard stories about the oni from his sister on stormy nights; terrifying tales of how the long nosed, fanged monsters caught and ate children.
‘Bring torches!’ Lord Akechi ordered his men outside. Two samurai barged in and the interior of the shrine was suddenly awash with flickering orange light. They tore the shrine apart, prodding with spears in every corner. Gen watched their shadows dance dramatically on the walls, then pulled the bearskin over his eyes in utter terror and made himself as small as possible. One of the samurai gave a cursory glance under the altar, but Muneshige’s dark bearskin saved him - the samurai saw nothing but an empty black space.
And as suddenly as they had come they were gone.

Lord Akechi went outside and mounted his horse wearily. He’d been searching for Muneshige and the boy for hours now, and was ready to give up, but still he hesitated. The orders from his father flashed through his mind:
They must be made an example. His father the vice-regent had ordered. Leave no Soga male alive.
Lord Akechi knew that as long as the Soga lived, they could someday rekindle the rebellious spirit of those samurai clans still outraged at the military rule of the Shogun, and at the impotency of the emperor, who was now a mystical figurehead living cloistered and powerless in the capital. In the not too distant past the samurai were warriors in service of the emperor, and some families had never forgotten that fact, especially the powerful Soga clan. Five years previously, when the now-exiled emperor kindled a rebellion against the Shogun’s government, the Soga were the first to come to the imperial majesty’s aid. The rebellion was crushed, and the Soga were sentenced to extermination, but had managed to survive.
Until now.
He was virtually certain Muneshige and the Soga brat had plunged to their deaths down a steep mountainside. Earlier, while they were galloping in pursuit, they’d heard a frantic whinnying not far up the path. They came up around a bend and one of his men spotted Muneshige’s broken dead horse far below at the bottom of a steep rocky slope. They peered down carefully from above but they couldn’t see any bodies. But they did spot the tiny crescent shape of Muneshige’s bow perched on a rock halfway down a steep boulder field.
Akechi had decided that Muneshige and the boy must have fallen into the gaping gaps between the giant rocks. Their bodies would never be found.
Bah, I have done my duty, he told himself. Time to return to Kamakura and glory.
A triumphant smile lit up his handsome features, and he whipped his horse into a gallop and led his samurai thundering back down the mountainside.
Dawn arrived and a mountain hermit trudged up the valley, wondering which lord’s cavalry had befouled the path with hundreds of hoof prints that were now filled in with muddy rainwater. The old man was pale as a fishes’ belly and his skin was mottled with age, but he was supple-limbed and walked with long, powerful strides that to a trained eye would reveal he was once a warrior. He wore a straw raincoat, white leggings splattered with mud, wooden clogs with warn-down stilts on his feet and a wide-brimmed straw hat that hid his eyes in darkness. Over his shoulder he carried a gnarled staff polished with age with a small box wrapped in cloth tied to the end.
Rain started falling in broad sweeping sheets and the hermit muttered an oath in Chinese. He came upon the same vermillion gate on the side of the path that Muneshige had discovered and decided to take shelter in the shrine.
He entered the small wooden structure in a hurry, stirring specks of dust floating in the dull sunlight, and leaned against the wall to regain his breath. He shook the rainwater off his hat, took off his coat wearily, revealing a Chinese-style short robe underneath, then came to the altar and clapped his hand to get the attention of the kami – the god of the shrine.
‘What a spot of luck!’ he exclaimed in Chinese, examining the offerings. ‘This is a shrine dedicated to Hachiman, the God of War.’ He clapped his hands to get the attention of the god, and bowed reverently.
The sound of a child sniffling suddenly emanated from below and he let out an exclamation and jumped back in alarm. He bent over, peered under the altar, and spotted a tiny face wet with tears. He let out a whoop of surprise. ‘Has Hachiman sired a son?’ he exclaimed in wonder. He stepped forward and reached down inside to pull the boy out. Gentaro squealed like a trapped animal, grabbed the hermit’s bony hand and bit into a fingertip, drawing blood. The old man yelped and yanked his hand out.
‘Aha!’ he exclaimed with a hint of laughter. ’He’s the son of his father all right!’ He sucked his bleeding fingertip and scratched the back of his head in thought until an idea struck him. He untied his traveling box from his staff, took out a rice ball wrapped in a bamboo leaf, spread the cloth in front of the alcove, and left the food on top of it. He then sat down with his back against the wall with a relaxed sigh, watching the rice ball as a fisherman watches his bait float in the water. But his contentment soon turned to consternation as he realized he could not just leave the boy to die here.
Where did he come from? the hermit wondered, clicking his tongue in annoyance. What can I do with him? I did not come to these islands to take care of an orphan!
After a while Gentaro’s hunger got the better of his fear and he scampered out of the alcove like a raccoon dog, seized the rice ball and wolfed it down.
The hermit crept up to him gently as the little boy chewed. ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said softly in Japanese. Gentaro nervously fingered the dried flaking blood on his legs and stared at him with a mixture of terror and hope in his eyes. The hermit saw the blood and raised his white eyebrows in a mixture of curiosity and concern. ‘Can you tell me your name boy?’
Gentaro hesitated for a fearful moment and then in a tiny voice whimpered, ‘Soga Gentaro Muneaki’.
The old man blanched. ‘Soga?’ A look of understanding then dawned on his wizened face. I knew he looked familiar! The Soga must have hidden the boy here in desperation. He sat staring at the boy, wondering what would be the best course of action. Then an idea materialized. There is a particular village in the Soga heartland that would hide this boy, he decided. Perhaps they may be willing to take the risk and share the burden of sheltering and raising him. Perhaps the Soga clan will live on after all.
‘Come with me, Hachiman Taro,’ said the hermit, calling Gentaro by the name of the son of the war god, only half in jest.

********************

Lord Akechi Yasutoki, conquering hero of the cursed rebels, returned to the military capital of Kamakura in glorious triumph. The youth rode at the head of his two thousand warriors wearing his buffalo-horned helmet and his crimson armor that he’d had polished three times for the occasion. The whole city had heard the tales of the younger Akechi’s bravery; of how he had slain both the rebel Lord Soga Yoshishige and the legendary warrior Muneshige in single combat. The townsmen and samurai parted to either side of the busy narrow streets to watch the shining warrior ride past, and gape at the gruesome trophy of Lord Soga’s head attached to his saddle in a silken net. Fathers held their sons on their shoulders, so the boys could boast they had seen the conquering hero’s return.
Akechi sat up arrow straight in his saddle, trying to conceal his exhaustion. It had been a long journey. Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun, had made the city his capital because it was very far from the imperial palace in Miyako. He had wished to keep the new military capital physically as well as philosophically distant from the court. And in Kamakura Yoritomo had built the most magnificent shrine in the land and dedicated it to the war god Hachiman in gratitude for his victories. Akechi passed under the huge vermillion gate of this shrine and dismounted. A huge crowd of pilgrims and worshippers cheered as he presented the head priest with three white horses with silver-plated saddles to thank the war god for his victory.
He left the shrine and continued his triumphal progress to the city center. He turned onto the grand Wakamiya Avenue, passing the residences of the Shogun, and entered the Wakamiya itself - the sprawling complex that served as the headquarters of the Shogun’s military government. He passed ranks of high-ranking samurai who came out to salute him, but he held his head high and regarded them arrogantly. From early childhood he’d been taught that he was superior even to the more powerful samurai families, as the Akechi had divine imperial blood running through their veins. His ancestors, in accordance with ancient custom, had been sent to the provinces where there had been no place for them at court, the imperial highnesses traditionally having scores of children.
Leaving his men outside the gates, the triumphant hero trotted into the courtyard of the Great Hall of State and cantered past an honor guard of five hundred Shogunate samurai in light grey uniforms standing at attention in immaculately aligned ranks. Waiting at the top of the stairs of the hall were the boy Shogun, the all-powerful Regent and his own father the Vice-regent: Akechi Hiroie, Lord of Kamakura Province. The plump, famously lascivious elder Akechi cut a dapper figure in a kimono of finest quality embossed with the family insignia of five sword cuts, and split trousers of expensive imported fabric.
Yasutoki dismounted, unattached the grisly package from his saddle, walked slowly up the stairs and went to one knee before the most powerful men in the land.
‘The Soga Clan is extinct!’ he informed the high officials in his youthful ringing voice. ‘Every male bearing the name of Soga, be he grey haired, man or child, has been put to the sword!’
He removed the head from the net and placed it on the customary wooden display stand that had been prepared beforehand. The high officials examined the head carefully, as was the tradition, and then the Regent approached Yasutoki and raised his voice so the entire assembly could hear.
‘The Regent declares the trophy genuine! Soga Jiro Yoshishige has been slain by Akechi Ichiro Yasutoki. For this act of bravery I bequeath to Akechi Ichiro Yasutoki the province of Iyo, which was formerly the fief of the Soga. The last of the rebels have been wiped out forever, and the rule of the Shogunate in the name of the august imperial majesty is assured for the next ten thousand years!’
‘Banzai!’ cried the honor guard in unison, throwing their hands in the air. ‘Banzai! Banzai!’
The shogun and regent bowed their congratulations to Yasutoki and Lord Akechi Hiroie limped over to his only son, the new hero.
‘You’ve done what your father failed to do,’ the lord of Kamakura proudly informed him. ‘You’ve finished off the Soga.’
‘Yes father. And you have your revenge.” Ten years earlier the elder Akechi had faced Lord Soga at the Battle of Uji Bridge in the Emperor’s capital of Miyako, where Shogunate forces defeated the remnants of the Imperial army. But for Lord Akechi Hiroie it was a pyrrhic victory, for along with the lands he was bequeathed as a victory prize he’d also received a lame leg: the result of an arrow shot by Muneshige from an impossible distance. It had gone clean through his thigh, maiming him forever, and to add insult to injury Lord Soga had managed to escape back to Shikoku. He’d seethed with bitterness for the last ten years, planning and scheming inside the complicated political labyrinth of the Shogunate to make this day a reality. He’d even dedicated his only son to the cause, sparing no expense to retain the services the top martial artists in the land; experts with the sword, the bow and the lance. They had trained Yasutoki with draconian discipline until he had become like a vicious hunting dog, straining at his leash and howling for blood.
Yasutoki looked with contempt at the soft samurai leaders standing around him. Now that the land was unified and peaceful under the shoguns they fancied themselves courtiers. With the lack of warfare and too much time on their hands most were attempting to take on the trappings of culture: poetry, painting, the Chinese classics, and now this strange new Buddhist sect from the mainland called Zen that was all the rage. So what if I can’t even read, he told himself, much less compose a poem. But what harm has that done me?
The elder Akechi lowered his voice. ‘Tell me… how did Lord Soga die?’
Yasutoki smirked. ‘We fought an honorable duel on the deck of his ship. But Akahebi was too hungry!’ He patted the ivory hilt of his sword fondly, like a falconer stroking his favorite bird after a fine kill. ‘I ran him clean through as his little son watched.’
The bitter old man rubbed his hands together with triumphant glee. ‘Come my son,’ he said and they walked down the stairs. ‘Too long you have been away from the city. Your appetites must be whetted indeed.’ He stared into his son’s eyes with a thin smile. ‘I’ve procured three courtesans of the first class to attend to your every need. You can afford them now that Iyo is yours!’
Yasutoki laughed, but his mirth was cut short by a sudden unaccustomed feeling that washed over him. He was elated with his victory and newfound wealth but oddly he did not feel as satisfied as he thought he would. He felt sated and still hungry at the same time. The fires in his heart had been stoked by victory, and lust for more of the same filled his ego like sweet poison. His smile slowly disappeared, and a strange disquiet filled his soul. He decided he needed more, and soon, and would do anything to have it all.
Yes! he vowed to himself. Someday I will better my father, and become regent. I will play the Shogun and emperor like puppets. And control the fate of this land like a god!
They mounted their horses and galloped off to their clan compound, and the glittering samurai of the Shogunate honor guard filed out of the courtyard until it was empty. Empty save Jiro Yoshishige, Eighth Lord of the Soga clan, whose head rested forgotten on its wooden stand – a lonely relic of a bygone era when the samurai were servants of the emperor, rather than seekers of wealth and power.