Sunday, 23 October 2011

I.J. Parker: 'Unsheathed Swords'

The following excerpt comes from 'Unsheathed Swords', Book Two of the Hollow Reed trilogy by I. J. Parker

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As the Minamoto and Taira clans arm for a war that will destroy an ancient civilization, Yamada Sadahira, who had rejected the warrior way, is forced to take up his sword under the treacherous Yoritomo in order to protect his family against the vengeance of Toshiko’s father. He leaves his wife behind to raise their children and run the Yamada estate. Sadahira’s adopted son, Hachiro, who has grown into a lean and dangerous swordsman, pursues his guilty love for his father’s wife, but the lovers part when Hachiro sets out to redeem his father’s freedom. Toshiko must meet her father’s brutal wrath alone.

In this second book of the trilogy, the scenery expands from the splendor of the court to the panorama of mountains and sea, from court intrigues to battlefields. The epic contest leads to bloodshed and tests the bonds between father and child and between husband and wife.


The day of the duel, it snowed all day, and by nightfall, roofs and streets were white and the mountains a gray haze on the horizon. Where lamps were lit in the business quarters, the light gilded the snow, making it sparkle. Elsewhere the night was luminescent, as if the snow had retained some of the vanished daylight to outline objects more sharply. It was possible to see almost as well as during the day.

The guardsmen left the wine house near the Ensho-ji in good time for the appointed meeting. The mulled wine had heated their blood, and they walked along laughing boisterously and slapping Takehira’s back from time to time to encourage him. Behind them trudged Jiro, carrying the carefully wrapped sword.

Fighting was illegal, but Ensho-ji was a small abandoned temple outside the city ramparts. Duels were fairly common here, and the authorities turned a blind eye. If there were witnesses, they were usually friends of the participants who attended for moral support and to carry their wounded or dead home. An unaccompanied loser was left behind to the untender attentions of roaming thieves. By the time the sun rose and his naked corpse was found, he was anonymous and buried quickly in an unmarked grave by the river.

It was still snowing but much more lightly, and the air was very cold. Gradually, the men fell silent. The cluster of dark temple halls came nearer and reminded them of the secrecy and seriousness of their purpose. Eventually there was only the crunching of their steps in the freezing snow and Jiro’s labored breathing as he tried to keep up with their long strides.

“Is your head clear?” Yoshimitsu asked quietly when they reached the leaning gate.

“Of course.” Takehira turned and extended an impatient hand for his sword. Only Yoshimitsu would come with him. The others prepared to take up their stations here to make sure the fight was not interrupted by curious constables or self-righteous passers-by. Takehira unwrapped the sword, dropping the cover in the snow for Jiro to pick up, and shoved the sword through his sash.

“Remember,” said Sadaie, one of the watchers, “attack like a tiger.”

The other added, “And hurry up. It’s too cold to stand around all night.”

Takehira and Yoshimitsu walked into the pale, gleaming courtyard and made their way around the main hall. Takehira fingered the hilt of his sword nervously, regretting that he had not thought this out properly. Nothing wrong with a quick and deadly attack, but how was he to discover where his sister and her lover were hiding? A belly cut, he thought. It was not immediately fatal. But the noise? The beardless wonder would scream like a stuck rabbit.

They rounded the final corner and saw that they were alone.

“Where is he?” Takehira grumbled. “Bet the coward’s not coming.”

“Be patient. We’re early.”

They waited. Takehira flexed his knees and worked his arms. Yoshimitsu paced.

The sound of a bell, thin and faint, signaled the beginning of the hour of the rat, the traditional time for such illegal encounters. When the last sound faded away, another bell sounded, and somewhere, disturbingly close by, the call of a night watchman confirmed the time.

They looked around again, back the way they had come, and ahead, but there was no one, and all was silent.

“Nothing!” Takehira kicked the snow savagely. “I might’ve known. He was having us on and like fools we fell for a kid’s trick.”

“We? Speak for yourself. You’re the one that picked the fight. All by yourself.”

“Shut up. What’ll I do now? I’ve got to find the bastard and his father. They’ve insulted my family.”

“That’s easy enough,” said Yoshimitsu. “Ask anyone who knows about sword fighting and they’ll point him out. I bet every street urchin knows where ‘Lightning Blade’ hangs out.”

“I can save you the trouble,” said a cool voice from the veranda of the hall.

The two guard officers whirled around. Yamada Hachiro jumped down into the snow with catlike elegance. He strolled toward them, wearing the same black robe, but now his trousers were in the narrow style, and he had wrapped them with black fabric as high as the knees. His long sword was pushed through the black sash.

About ten yards from them he stopped, a thin black brush stroke against the white snow. “Am I to fight both of you? And the two at the gate also?”

Takehira still gaped at the sudden appearance of his opponent, but Yoshimitsu answered for him. “Certainly not,” he snapped. “We’re guards officers and fight fairly. I’m only an unarmed observer, and the others make sure nobody interrupts us.”

“In that case, let’s waste no more time.” Reaching across his body with his right hand, Yamada Hachiro drew his blade so smoothly that the move looked almost like a dance. Then he took his position.

Takehira still stood, uncertain and glowering. Strangely, he could not call up the heat of anger that had led to the challenge in the first place, or the sense of sacred obligation to avenge the honor of his family. This scene in the cold, snow-bright temple courtyard felt unreal, like something from a bad dream, and the black figure with the sword belonged to the world of demons and ghouls.

Hachiro sighed loudly and straightened up, lowering his sword again. “Did you come for a snow viewing?”

Takehira flushed. “Before I kill you, I want to know where your bastard of a father has taken my sister,” he called out.

The other man laughed softly. “Such brotherly love. Even if I felt like telling you, you won’t need the information.” He took up his position again.

Takehira moved his hand to the sword grip but still hesitated.

Yoshimitsu frowned and urged, “You can’t back out now. Remember the guards and your family’s honor.”

“Curse you, Yoshi,” growled Takehira, pulling his blade free. “I don’t need you to tell me how to give a half-baked braggart a lesson in fighting. Come on you, Shining Sword, or whatever you call yourself, let’s see you fight a man’s battle. I’m Oba Takehira, son of Oba Hiramoto, and I’ve been using my sword since before you left your whore of a mother’s tits, you foul little Yamada bastard.”

His opponent said nothing, merely adjusted his stance a little when Takehira moved toward the left. The light was not good but Takehira could make out the other man’s steely eyes. For all his bravado, he quaked inside. Truth to tell, he had never fought for his life, and only one glance at the stern young face in front of him told him that this encounter would not stop with a superficial wound. His own intention of killing the upstart Yamada did not prevent his dismay that the other man might feel the same way. He had not considered the possibility before.
They circled warily as snowflakes drifted down, settling briefly on their hair, their faces, their clothes. Takehira was so tense that the muscles in his sword arm began to quiver. The other, curse him, looked completely relaxed, just waiting for the right moment.

Battle training taught speed and force in the attack. The sword was held high above one’s head during the charge so that it could be brought down with enough force to cut through steel and bone. But here Takehira must move cautiously, keeping his sword at chest height to protect himself against a sudden swipe because his opponent fought differently and planned his attacks. He could not do what his friends advised. Takehira’s muscles ached and his eyes burned as they gauged the other man’s intentions. In the pit of his belly, fear twisted like a slimy snake, and somewhere behind his eyes lurked despair.

When the first attack finally came, Takehira saw only a flash of the sword and reacted instinctively, throwing himself sideways. His foot slipped in the wet snow. He went down on one knee as his opponent’s blade whistled less than of foot above his head. He was in no position to strike back, but the dark figure of his attacker had already whirled away before the sound of his sword had faded into the night.

The silence was the worst, Takehira decided, as he jumped back up. In battle, a soldier shouted ferociously during the attack. Shouting gave a man the strength of ten-thousand tigers and instilled paralyzing fear in his opponent. In all their practice sessions, Takehira had had the most powerful voice. He had felt invincible then. Here there was no sound but the soft scuffling of feet in snow, the puffing of his breath, and that awful whistling made by the coming blade.

But from the abject depth of fear, Takehira somehow drew strength. He was an Oba, the oldest son and heir of a family trained to fight for their property and honor. Who was this second-rate Yamada compared to him? A mere stripling with no standing in the world. Only an adopted son without the blood of warriors in his veins. No, the gods would not tolerate that such a one should shame an Oba.

Seizing his sword with both hands, Takehira lifted it above his head and fixed his eyes on his adversary. Yamada had withdrawn a few steps to await Takehira’s next move, still with that unconcerned look on his smooth face, curse him. With a full-throated roar of fury, Takehira rushed him, every fiber of his body concentrated in his arms, his speed, his shout, his single thought on bringing down the heavy sword with all his strength on the unprotected head of Yamada. He would split him like log. His sword would slice through that arrogant face and into the body until the two halves would slowly part and fall to either side. And now was the moment, and Takehira slashed down.

But demonlike, the other man seemed to fly away and vanish into the air – when only a moment before he been so close that Takehira had been able to see the precise way his topknot was twisted and tied. Takehira’s sword traveled down unopposed and unstoppable and entered the snowy ground with a hiss. Takehira pulled it back, his head swiveling, searching for his victim, when he felt the blow to his upper thigh. And then he saw him, the devil, just to his right, taking his stance again. Waiting.
Takehira’s right leg felt odd, hot, burning as if it had been touched by fire. But he could not be bothered and raised his sword again, roared, and attacked. Nothing. The slippery demon had jumped out of reach again. Takehira stopped, breathing hard and cursing. His foot had slipped, that was all. He risked a glance downward and snapped his head back in disbelief. His white trouser leg had turned red and so had the snow he stood in. He looked over toward the temple hall where Yoshimitsu waited. His friend was preparing to jump down from the veranda.

Takehira knew that such blood loss would take his strength very quickly. Already he felt light-leaded. No more time for cautious circling and looking for the right moment to attack. He must kill his opponent quickly, or be killed himself.

As Yoshimitsu’s steps crunched toward them in the snow, Takehira turned toward his enemy and locked eyes with him. He raised his sword and saw Yamada start forward. Yamada’s face was set and cold now, and suddenly Takehira’s fear was back, curling in his belly, sucking the will out of him. Takehira prayed to the God Hachiman for help in this battle. And then he prayed to Buddha to save his life. And with the last shreds of his willpower and a final hoarse cry, he flung himself forward, holding the sword with both hands straight before him, his eyes on the place where the man’s navel must be, willing sword and navel to meet.

This time, he caught the other’s sideways move, saw the flash of his sword, and brought his own up to parry. The blades rang out like a scream in the silence of the snowy night. Takehira twisted away and tried to raise the sword again, but the other was gone and he was falling.

The snow came up to meet him, receiving him almost gently. He lay looking up at the dark figure looming above him. Death was very close, he thought, only breaths away. He tried to raise his sword, perhaps to ward off the fatal blow, perhaps to salute Death – only the sword was gone. His hand and part of his arm were also gone. He was waving a bloody stump against an empty sky.

The world became confusing then. Yoshimitsu appeared, looking down. He said something to Death.

White snow fell on his wounded arm and turned blood red. Takehira muttered in protest. Then Death was gone and instead his mother bent over him. But his mother was dead. It must be Toshiko. “Look at his leg,” she said. “He’s done for.” She sounded like a man. Takehira thought that’s what comes of letting a woman forget her place. He looked up at dark, faceless faces, muttered, “See . . .” and then snowflakes settled on his open eyes, cool like the night.

Snow cooling the fire in his arm, in his leg.

Snow turning the white night cold.

More about I.J. Parker's novels here:


Maggi Andersen said...

I enjoyed the excerpt I J.

I.J.Parker said...

Thank you, Maggi.

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