War Tales

By S. Chakraborty

The boy sat in seiza on the lacquered floor in full armor, a thin stream of sweat slithering cautiously down his pale cheek. He flicked at it with long fingers, letting out a deep, quivering sigh as he tried not to think of the rage of war just outside. Any moment now. His father was bound to arrive at any moment-

            The door burst open, and an armored man, scuffed and beaten, staggered into the room. The boy immediately leapt up, rushing to steady his father even as he searched his face with wide eyes. The older man’s lines seemed to have deepened, his deep set eyes glazed in shadow, the salt and pepper mustache covered in dirt. 

            “Are you wounded?” his son said, swallowing.

            “No, no, I’m fine. Fighting from sunrise to evening takes a toll, though,” the father said, standing up straight without the help of his son. His voice was tired, deeply tired. “How’s your mother?”

            The boy merely bowed his head, and his father seemed to age another two years on the spot. “Well, it was for the best,” he said, almost to himself. “Lord Inaba has lusted after her for years. Better she die by her own hand then by the pure shame of…of…” He closed his eyes, and then looked at his son. “And your little sister?”

“She’s fine, last I saw. Hisako was playing a game with her. She has no idea.”

The samurai nodded gravely, and then raised his arms to the sides. “Help me take this armor off, Shintaro.”

            The boy’s eyes widened. “Take your armor off? But aren’t you-“

            “There’s no point in it,” his father replied, voice leaden. “It is over. General Kunitomo is dead, and the western keep is overrun. All that is left is the courtyard and the donjon, and by sunset they’ll have taken both.” He removed his helmet, austere but for its golden horns, and he glared at his son. “Don’t just stand there gaping, help me!”

            Shintaro scrambled to obey, his hands shaking slightly as he untied his father’s left sode arm guard. “Stop your shaking! You’re a man now, understand?” The samurai barked suddenly, and he could feel his son consciously trying to hold it in. Again, he closed his eyes a few moments. His voice was quiet.  “All things end one day, my son. It is merely fate that the end of the Hayashi clan must come today.”

             Shintaro was silent, but his father could feel his shaking had only worsened. There was silence between them, and only the distant sounds of bloody war wafted into the room.

            “I know what you’ll have me do,” Shintaro whispered as he set aside his father’s sode and began untying his do-maru. “And I don’t know if I can do it.”

            “You are samurai; you’ve been raised from birth for this day. Of course you can do it.” Lord Hayashi’s voice took on a hard edge. “You have Hayashi blood, Shintaro. And you will die gloriously, as every samurai doomed to die must.”

            “I’ve never even been to battle before, Father. What if I don’t do you proud? I may have memorized my kata, and maybe I can hit a target, but it’s different out there, isn’t it? Even hearing it makes my blood run cold. And the screams…” Shintaro’s hands began trembling too much for him to finish untying the do-maru, and he closed his fists in shame, trying to gain control back. Lord Hayashi turned, grasping his son’s shoulders firmly. They were bony, still, only beginning to bulk up. “Listen to me, Shintaro,” he said, leaning his forehead against his son’s. “I was afraid for my first battle, too. Terrified, really. They were bigger, better, stronger than we were.  I’d never even seen a battle before, let alone fought in one. And your grandfather told me the same family secret his father had once told him – that we’re all cowards, whether we’d like to think we are or not. Or at least, we have cowards within us, just waiting to take control, to break and run at the last moment when it really truly matters. The great man recognizes that, accepts it, and seeks to master his cowardice. The weak one ignores it, denies it, and succumbs to it in his darkest hour. Just remember that a man lasts only a hundred years, but a man’s memory lasts a hundred thousand. Summon your courage, hold back your cowardice, just for the last moments of your life. That is all that matters in the war tales.”

            “A-alright,” Shintaro said, his eyes still looking down at the ground, though his shaking had stopped. Lord Hayashi leaned back slowly, even as his hands still rested on the boy’s shoulders. “Do you fear too, Father?” the boy asked suddenly. “Even you?”

            “Even me,” Lord Hayashi replied. “I’d always feared this day, ever since Lord Inaba triumphed at Kizugahara. I’d always feared being the clan head during our fall, knowing we would lose no matter how hard I fought.”

            “Do you ever fear…well, death? Or at least wonder what’s beyond it?”

            Lord Hayashi lowered his eyes, and then met his son’s. “True samurai do not fear death,” he said, suddenly quiet and monotonous. “And the priests are quite clear about what happens afterward.”

            “What if they’re wrong? What if we’re killing for-“

            His hand was lightning fast, and he slapped his boy hard across the cheek. “Don’t you ever say such things,” he hissed.  Lord Hayashi stepped backward, lifting the do-maru over his head and slipping the kusazuri down his legs and off of him, revealing a black kimono underneath. There was a silence, suddenly unbearable, and his gaze flickered back to Shintaro. The boy stared at the floor, deeply troubled. Suddenly remembering, Lord Hayashi drew his ornate katana, scabbard and all, from his obi.  “You take it. It’s been in our family for generations. Finest steel, faithful forever. We’ve killed many an enemy of the Hayashi clan with this blade. This is your first battle, and also your last. Make us proud, Shintaro. Remember your legacy. Remember death.”

            “Remember death,” Shintaro murmured back after a moment, drawing the sword delicately and eyeing the cold steel. It was still clean, his father having used a spear in battle. The scabbard was engraved with two green dragons entwined, and the tsuba had the kanji character for ‘courage’ on it. He slipped it silently into his obi, and looked Lord Hayashi in the eye. “Aren’t you…aren’t you going to give me your wakizashi, too?”

            Lord Hayashi was silent, simply looking at his son with hooded eyes. Shintaro shook his head to himself, his cheeks paling even more. He took in a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly. “Alright, Father.” His voice was soft, resigned. “You have your duty, I have mine.” He bowed deeply, and Lord Hayashi bowed back. They held the position a few moments, and then straightened. Lord Hayashi took the kabuto he’d placed on the table, brushed off some of the grime of war, and then placed it on his son’s head. “There, you’ve almost grown into it,” he said,  holding the sides of the helmet. “The last hundred of our samurai are mounted and waiting to be led, son. Go to them.” There was a moment, and then he kissed the crown of the helm and backed away slowly. His son stood there in full armor, his father’s helmet on his head and the Hayashi family sword in his belt. Shintaro swallowed, thinking for a moment. “I’ve never even killed before, Father, and…what if I can’t?”

            A mirthless laugh escaped Lord Hayashi’s cracked lips. “Trust me, it becomes much easier when it’s either you or him.”

            Lord Hayashi could see his son’s eyes hardening before his eyes, resigning himself to what had to be done. Shintaro turned, clenched his fists, and he strode out of the room.

            It was strange, ethereal almost. He would never see his son again. The sheer enormity of the thought was too much to fully comprehend.

            He turned, dazed, and walked past his trappings and belongings. He began to climb the stairs. His daughter was on the third story – she was the last thing he had to attend to before he could leave the world.

            The second story – he stopped to take a rest, leaning against a wall. The window was inches from his face, the wind rejuvenating him, but he did not dare to look outside. No, not while his son was in the field. If he began watching now, he’d never be able to look away.

            He pushed off the wall and kept walking, slow but steady. Maids and manservants bolted past him as if he were not even there, and he let them go. They were peasants – running was all they knew. And a man should at least be able to choose how he spent his final moments.

            And a man should at least be able to choose how he spent his final moments.

           His son, his son. Gods, his son. Shintaro had aroused such thoughts within him, dark doubts he hadn’t held in years. It was stupid of course, horribly unlikely, but…what if the priests, the samurai, were all wrong?

            He’d started this whole war for honor’s sake, when Lord Inaba had said what he’d said about his wife. What was a man to do? Sit by and let such bile pass through another man’s lips without consequence? The only proper thing, the honorable thing was to fight.

            But why, if it was so honorable, did the gods allow it to end like this?

            He violently shot the unwelcome thought down, but felt its lingering presence. Of course it wasn’t true, of course it wasn’t, but…his wife had killed herself, his son was charging an unbeatable enemy, and he was about to join the nether world himself. The Hayashi were finished. And all over an insult…

            No, all for honor! Honor, you craven fool!

            He reached the third floor of the donjon, the edges of his vision swimming. Enough of it, enough of it. Aya could read doubt like any adult could. He made his way to the inner sanctum, and he could see a silhouette of an elderly woman kneeling on the floor with a child, soft voices. He let out a deep breath, exhaling his fears, his worries – or so he hoped. He slid the screen door open, revealing a large room with lacquered wood floors, rather utilitarian in appearance. The balcony and the all the windows had been sealed, but even here, he could not completely escape the clamor of war.

            Hisako, old, grey, eyes watery, immediately rose and bowed, and little Aya followed suit. Lord Hayashi nodded his head back, and Hisako approached him. “How is she?” Lord Hayashi murmured so that his daughter would not hear.

            “She’s fine. A little shaken, but fine. Your daughter is a marvel, lord – even you were not so calm as a child.” Hisako’s silver hair was tied in a bun, some of the hairs poking out of it, and she strained to look up at the burly Lord Hayashi. “How go things in the field?”

            “It is over. General Kunitomo is dead, and they’ve breached the courtyard.”

            “And the young master?”

            “Leading the troops. He will die like a man.”

            Hisako was silent, nodding. “Yes, that is how it should be,” she said, almost more to herself than to Lord Hayashi. She looked at Lord Hayashi, her eyes hard. “I trust you will be able to do what must be done yourself?”

            A split second of hesitation. “Of course, Hisako-san.”

            She nodded again. “Good. Then am I relieved from service to the Hayashi clan?”

            “Yes. Do what you must.” The words sounded so casual, and yet another immeasurable pang struck Lord Hayashi as he relieved from service the woman who’d essentially raised him.

            “Thank you,” she said. There was a moment of silence between them, and then slowly she shuffled off, her hand grasping the dagger in her belt. She turned, slowly pulling the screen door shut behind them. Her eyes did not meet Lord Hayashi’s, though he willed them to. She seemed already preoccupied with her passage into the next world.

            He turned, facing his daughter. She wore a scarlet yukata robe with golden butterflies adorning it, and her hair ran black and lovely down her shoulders. Her face was still round and childish, but already her eyes were beginning to take on the still calm of her mother’s eyes. She looked at him, searching. He went to her and sat down next to her.

            “Where did Hisako-san go?”

            “I think she was hungry,” Hayashi lied, badly. “She went to get some rice from Ichiro-san.” She gave him a look, clearly not believing him, but she did not press on. “Where is Shintaro-kun? And Mother? Will they come soon?”

            “Not yet. We will meet them later.”

            “How much later?”

            “It won’t be long now. Don’t worry, Aya-chan.”

            Aya bit her lip as she always did when she was mulling something over in her mind, attempting to make sense of her father’s cryptic words. “Are we going to lose?” she asked, and for the first time he could sense the insecurity in his daughter’s voice.

            “I am not sure. I-“

            His words were cut by a loud, rapid thunk thunk thunk on the wall. “Stay here,” he said, voice suddenly constricted, and he bolted over to the balcony and opened the window. Immediately the full force of battle struck him, and he willed himself to look away from the swimming hordes beneath the donjon and look at the source of the noise.

Three arrows. And they were aflame.

He stared at them, paling. Fire. They were setting his castle on fire. He ducked inside briefly as dozen more arrows hit the other side, and the smell of burning wood invaded his nostrils. Fire. That bastard Inaba planned on burning both he and his daughter alive. And there was no way in hell they’d ever put it out – castle donjons were made of wood and paper. By the time he’d even gotten water the place would be ablaze.

His eyes flickered below, and trained eyes assessed the situation. Inaba’s men had pushed their way to the middle of the courtyard, where about a hundred to a hundred fifty Hayashi samurai and ashigaru soldiers fought furiously to the death. With a pang he realized his son was nowhere to be seen. He could see his yashiki mansion burning in the distance, the bodies that littered the ground in wanton ugliness, destroying the carefully groomed tranquility of his courtyard garden. Erected on the wall guarding the inner sanctum was the accursed brown banner of the Inaba clan, its golden wheel mocking him with its very existence. The silver butterfly of the Hayashi clan was puny, tattered, held above the heads of the last few defenders with quiet desperation. More of the brown armored warriors of the Inaba climbed over the breach in the wall with every passing second. They trampled Hayashi and Inaba bodies alike with impunity.

Slowly, shaking, he closed the window, and the next thunk thunk thunk hammered into his very soul. His daughter was looking at him with wide eyes. “What happened, Father? What was that sound?”

            Suddenly exhausted again, Lord Hayashi looked at his daughter, her tiny brow knitted in worry, confusion, and he made the choice. “We’ve lost, Aya-chan,” he said, his voice retaining stoicism even now. “We’ve lost the war. Your mother is dead, and your brother is fighting them right now. The castle will be on fire in minutes. There’s nothing left for us but to die. Do you understand?”

            “Die?” She did not even really seem to grasp the word, and it sounded vile coming from that innocent face. She bit her lip, seeming to think as hard as she could, and Lord Hayashi marveled at his daughter’s magnificent calm. He’d expected screaming, a tantrum, panic. Not this. She really was her mother’s daughter.

            “But…” she furrowed her brow again, as if it were truly incomprehensible to her. “Why do we have to die?”

            Lord Hayashi looked down at Aya, and found himself unable to speak. He thought of the warrior’s way, of honor, dignity and pride. And yet, all he could manage was, “Because if we don’t die now, we’ll die in the fire, and that will be even more painful than anything else.”

            Aya was silent a few moments, staring past him. Lord Hayashi turned, following her gaze, and his soul melted as he saw the smoke coming through the cracks, the embers licking lustily at the wood, like an eavesdropping intruder.

            “Okay,” she said simply, and then she looked up at him, tears in her eyes. “I’m scared, Daddy. What happens after we die? Will it hurt?”

            “I don’t know for sure, Aya-chan,” he said softly, putting his hands on her shoulders. “The priests say we will reincarnate, and the cycle will begin again. That’s the only answer I have for you.” The only answer I have for myself.

            “Please don’t let it hurt, Daddy,” she said, blinking at him as tears openly began running down her face. He turned her around, keeping his hands on her shoulders. “Just relax, Aya-chan. Sing me a song. You’re so good at singing songs. Can you do that for me?”

            There was a silence, and Aya shivered violently for a fraction of a moment. Then, in a ghostly, high voice:

            Touryanse, touryanse. Koko wa doko no hosomichi ja?”

            Lord Hayashi closed his eyes. She began shivering slightly again.

            Tenjin-sama no hosomichi ja.”

            He threaded her hair between his fingers, and slowly moved one hand to her chin, another to the top of her head. His hands were gentle, her shivering worse with every passing second.

            Chitto toushite kudashanse.”

            Her voice began wavering. He could feel a hot tear trickle down her cheek and onto the back of his hand.

            Goyou no nai mono toushasenu.”

            He could feel his heart, a taiko drum in his chest. Gods, gods above, how could it have come to this?

            Kono ko no nanatsu no oiwai ni. O-fuda wo osame ni mairi-“

            A sickening crack, and Aya fell limp. He held her head there in his hands for a few moments, the fire crackling gleefully behind him. Slowly, he pressed her head to his chest, his eyes sightless. And then he laid her down, placing her head so that her little neck still looked intact. Like she was sleeping.

            The silence seemed even more hollow without the sound of Aya’s voice. He stared at her body, willing her to wake up, willing his wife to burst through the door with his son, for the Inaba to leave, for it all to just end.

            There was nothing but the sound of the fire, its voracious heat, of men fighting and dying outside, and from somewhere, crazed cheers. He turned his head to the outside, in silent, hazy rage. What sick man could possibly be cheering right now? Who could possibly look upon this fiery hell and call it victory?

            With slow, dumb fatalism he drew his wakizashi, still staring off at some point in space. Mechanically, he stripped off his kimono, bearing his open chest and stomach. The blade glinted in the fire light, as if it were yet another accomplice to his ruin. Openly, he felt the flame’s heat on his back. And with a small, sick sense of joy, he knew he was at least denying it the pleasure of taking his life itself.

            He grasped the short sword with two hands, turning the point on himself. For a moment, his arms were stone.

            Summon your courage, hold back your cowardice, just for the last moments of your life. That is all that matters in the war tales.

            Maybe it was true. And if it wasn’t, it was no longer worth living anyway.

            Minutes of blinding, blistering agony. And then, solace.

t the pleasure of taking his life itself.

            He grasped the short sword with two hands, turning the point on himself. For a moment, his arms were stone.

            Summon your courage, hold back your cowardice, just for the last moments of your life. That is all that matters in the war tales.

            Maybe it was true. And if it wasn’t, it was no longer worth living anyway.

            Minutes of blinding, blistering agony. And then, solace.