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Excerpt from Across
the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori
Part One by Lian Hearn © August 2002 , Riverhead Books
used by permission.
In the distance I could hear with acute clarity the drumming sound of a galloping horse. As the hoofbeats drew nearer I had the sense of forward memory that comes to you in dreams. I knew who I was going to see, framed between the shrine gates. I had never seen him before in my life, but my mother had held him up to us as a sort of ogre with which to frighten us into obedience: Dont stray on the mountain, dont play by the river, or Iida will get you! I recognized him at once. Iida Sadamu, lord of the Tohan. The horse reared and whinnied at the smell of blood. Iida sat as still as if he were cast in iron. He was clad from head to foot in black armor, his helmet crowned with antlers. He wore a short black beard beneath his cruel mouth. His eyes were bright, like a man hunting deer.
Those bright eyes met mine. I knew at once two things about him: first, that he was afraid of nothing in heaven or on earth; second, that he loved to kill for the sake of killing. Now that he had seen me, there was no hope.
His sword was in his hand. The only thing that saved me was the horses reluctance to pass beneath the gate. It reared again, prancing backwards. Iida shouted. The men already inside the shrine turned and saw me, crying out in their rough Tohan accents. I grabbed the last of the incense, hardly noticing as it seared my hand, and ran out through the gates. As the horse shied towards me I thrust the incense against its flank. It reared over me, its huge feet flailing past my cheeks. I heard the hiss of the sword descending through the air. I was aware of the Tohan all around me. It did not seem possible that they could miss me, but I felt as if I had split in two. I saw Iidas sword fall on me, yet I was untouched by it. I lunged at the horse again. It gave a snort of pain and a savage series of bucks. Iida, unbalanced by the sword thrust that had somehow missed its target, fell forward over its neck and slid heavily to the ground.
Horror gripped me, and in its wake panic. I had unhorsed the lord of the Tohan. There would be no limit to the torture and pain to atone for such an act. I should have thrown myself to the ground and demanded death. But I knew I did not want to die. Something stirred in my blood, telling me I would not die before Iida. I would see him dead first.
I knew nothing of the wars of the clans, nothing of their rigid codes and their feuds. I had spent my whole life among the Hidden, who are forbidden to kill and taught to forgive each other. But at that moment Revenge took me as a pupil. I recognized her at once and learned her lessons instantly. She was what I desired; she would save me from the feeling that I was a living ghost. In that split second I took her into my heart. I kicked out at the man closest to me, getting him between the legs, sank my teeth into a hand that grabbed my wrist, broke away from them, and ran towards the forest.
Three of them came after me. They were bigger than I was and could run faster, but I knew the ground, and darkness was falling. So was the rain, heavier now, making the steep tracks of the mountain slippery and treacherous. Two of the men kept calling out to me, telling me what they would take great pleasure in doing to me, swearing at me in words whose meaning I could only guess, but the third ran silently, and he was the one I was afraid of. The other two might turn back after a while, get back to their maize liquor or whatever foul brew the Tohan got drunk on, and claim to have lost me on the mountain, but this other one would never give up. He would pursue me forever until he had killed me.
As the track steepened near the waterfall the two noisy ones dropped back a bit, but the third quickened his pace as an animal will when it runs uphill. We passed by the shrine; a bird was pecking at the millet and it flew off with a flash of green and white in its wings. The track curved a little round the trunk of a huge cedar, and as I ran with stone legs and sobbing breath past the tree, someone rose out of its shadow and blocked the path in front of me.
I ran straight into him. He grunted as though I had winded him, but he held me immediately. He looked in my face and I saw something flicker in his eyes: surprise, recognition. Whatever it was, it made him grip me more tightly. There was no getting away this time. I heard the Tohan man stop, then the heavy footfalls of the other two coming up behind him.
Excuse me, sir, said the man I feared, his voice steady. You have apprehended the criminal we were chasing. Thank you.
The man holding me turned me round to face my pursuers. I wanted to cry out to him, to plead with him, but I knew it was no use. I could feel the soft fabric of his clothes, the smoothness of his hands. He was some sort of lord, no doubt, just like Iida. They were all of the same cut. He would do nothing to help me. I kept silent, thought of the prayers my mother had taught me, thought fleetingly of the bird.
What has this criminal done? the lord asked.
The man in front of me had a long face, like a wolfs. Excuse me, he said again, less politely. That is no concern of yours. It is purely the business of Iida Sadamu and the Tohan.
Unnh! the lord grunted. Is that so? And who might you be to tell me what is and what is not my concern?
Just hand him over! the wolf man snarled, all politeness gone. As he stepped forward, I knew suddenly that the lord was not going to hand me over. With one neat movement he twisted me behind his back and let go of me. I heard for the second time in my life the hiss of the warriors sword as it is brought to life. The wolf man drew out a knife. The other two had poles. The lord raised the sword with both hands, sidestepped under one of the poles, lopped off the head of the man holding it, came back at the wolf man, and took off the right arm, still holding the knife.
It happened in a moment, yet took an eternity. It happened in the last of the light, in the rain, but when I close my eyes I can still see every detail.
The headless body fell with a thud and a gush of blood, the head rolling down the slope. The third man dropped his stick and ran backwards, calling for help. The wolf man was on his knees, trying to stanch the blood from the stump at his elbow. He did not groan or speak.
The lord wiped the sword and returned it to its sheath in his belt. Come on, he said to me.
I stood shaking, unable to move. This man had appeared from nowhere. He had killed in front of my eyes to save my life. I dropped to the ground before him, trying to find the words to thank him.
Get up, he said. The rest of them will be after us in a moment.
I cant leave, I managed to say. I must find my mother.
Not now. Now is the time for us to run! He pulled me to my feet, and began to hurry me up the slope. What happened down there?
They burned the village and killed... The memory of my stepfather came back to me and I could not go on.
Yes, I whispered.
Its happening all over the province. Iida is stirring up hatred against them everywhere. I suppose youre one of them?
Yes. I was shivering. Although it was still late summer and the rain was warm, I had never felt so cold. But that wasnt only why they were after me. I caused Lord Iida to fall from his horse.
To my amazement the lord began to snort with laughter. That would have been worth seeing! But it places you doubly in danger. Its an insult hell have to wipe out. Still, you are under my protection now. I wont let Iida take you from me.
You saved my life, I said. It belongs to you from this day on.
For some reason that made him laugh again. We have a long walk, on empty stomachs and with wet garments. We must be over the range before daybreak, when they will come after us. He strode off at great speed, and I ran after him, willing my legs not to shake, my teeth not to chatter. I didnt even know his name, but I wanted him to be proud of me, never to regret that he had saved my life.
I am Otori Shigeru, he said as we began the climb to the pass. Of the Otori clan, from Hagi. But while Im on the road I dont use that name, so dont you use it either.
Hagi was as distant as the moon to me, and although I had heard of the Otori, I knew nothing about them except that they had been defeated by the Tohan at a great battle ten years earlier on the plain of Yaegahara.
Whats your name, boy?
Thats a common name among the Hidden. Better get rid of it. He said nothing for a while, and then spoke briefly out of the darkness. You can be called Takeo.
And so between the waterfall and the top of the mountain I lost my name, became someone new, and joined my destiny with the Otori.