Thursday, 6 November 2014

I interrupt your regular viewing to bring you, 'Barleycorn'.


Rain rippled the surface of the fish pond as Hiro stood looking out into the gathering storm. Somewhere in the distance a bell tolled, its iron clanging filled him with apprehension. There was a black sky over Eddo, huge storm clouds boiled above the harbour city. The cold, biting wind bent the trees violently in its path. The storm was an omen, he thought, and not an auspicious one either.
 He was leaving in the morning, parting from his wife and child. For how long he did not know. Until the job is done he had whispered to her earlier. She had said that she understood, but he could see by her red-rimmed eyes that she did not. She would not say it though, not on the eve of his departure. She knew how much it would unsettle him, and divert his focus from where it had to be. He should be concentrating on his men so that they may return safely to their loved ones, just as she hoped Hiro to return to his.
 The nights when he was away were long. Dark thoughts assailed her mind, making her fear the worst. Caring for their boy relieved some of the angst that she felt, but even he was now of an age to question his father’s long periods of absence. His queries made her realise he was growing up faster than she would have liked. Before long he, too, would be in service to the Prefecture. Just like his father, and his father’s father.
Hiro heard his wife approaching and turned to face her. They felt as melancholy as the weather but refused to show it. They had to be strong for one another, and strong collectively for their child. Hiro loved his wife and child deeply. They made him a better man and a finer officer, he believed.
She slipped into his arms and they held each other tightly. The storm raged all around them but they were oblivious to its power. Locked in a loving embrace, it felt as if time had slowed, and they were the last two people in the Isles. There was so much they wanted to say, but didn’t. They had been married long enough to know exactly how the other felt.
“Come inside,” she said, “It’s getting cold out here, and your son wants to talk to you before he goes to sleep.”
Hiro let himself be led by the hand into the warmth of the house, proud that he had such an understanding wife and loving child. Honour was not always found on the battlefield, he realised; it is found in the words and actions of your loved ones on the eve of conflict.
“But weren’t you scared?” his son asked, wide-eyed and curious.
“Scared? Well of course I was scared,” said Hiro.” I had never been so scared in all my life. I was shaking so much, my armour was rattling!”
The boy stifled a grin despite the seriousness of the topic. It made Hiro smile. The wonderment of children is a powerful thing, he realised. He tousled the hair on his son’s head and smiled. Hiro’s heart felt as light and free as one of his boy’s paper kites. But then, the familiar knot of fear sat in his gut like a millstone. He did his best to mask his mixed emotions, to smile, even if it felt strained upon his face. He would not scare the boy. He was relieved when his wife broke the tension he was feeling.
 “Hiro, it’s time he was asleep,” she said. “Five more minutes,” he replied.
“So what did you do?” asked the boy, now very much awake.
“I did what any good soldier would do,” he told him. “I fought harder, and with honour. What more is there?”
Hiro would not elaborate; the boy was too young for that. He didn’t feel comfortable telling him how it felt to go to war for your first time. One day he would find that out for himself. All Hiro could do was make sure he was prepared, just as Hiro’s father had done for him. Hiro, sitting now on his son’s bed, admitted to himself just how scared he had felt when faced with death at the hands of a soldier just like himself.
He remembered that day as if it were yesterday, the day that he first killed a man. He could recall the tiniest details. Insignificant maybe, but to him they were important. He could evoke the odour of the horses they rode, the smell of the dust rising from the road, the relentless sun beating down on them, and how relieved they were when night came and they were allowed to dismount and make camp. He remembered the hum-drum routine, rubbing down the mounts and feeding them, hobbling the horses in a picket line in the middle of the camp, pitching tents and stowing gear, before standing guard on the perimeter. Hiro remembered all of it very clearly; he also remembered the enemy attack in the quiet hours before the dawn.
He recalled the hiss of flaming arrows that streaked and sparked over their heads, setting the tents ablaze and scattering the horses.  Hiro recalled how they had charged up the gentle slope into the forest, and how the Shiho clan had advanced to receive them. He could smell the burning hair and skin of the man next to him who had taken a fire arrow in the face. He was about to turn and help his compatriot when he spotted an enemy soldier closing quickly upon him.
He wheeled to face his foe; sword held high with his master sergeant’s training mantra in his head. First your stance, then you stab, keep moving at all times, keep your opponent guessing where the next blow is coming from. Be like water, flow around your enemy and envelop him completely.
And that’s exactly what Hiro did.
He positioned himself to accept the charge. The enemy swung recklessly at his helmet and Hiro countered easily, blocking the downward trajectory of the attacker’s blade. A small shower of sparks erupted as their swords connected. Hiro moved to his opponent’s left and swung without thinking, letting the years of practice take control. The sergeant’s voice coming again from down the years: You kill not with the sword, but with your mind. Your weapon is merely an extension of your will; remember that and you may live, forget that and you will surely die.
In some curious twist of light and shade, his enemy reminded Hiro of a boy from his childhood. Hiro could see that the warrior felt as unsure as he did: nervous, uncertain, and riddled with fear. The fight was not pretty, that’s for sure. It was like the panicked flailing of a drowning man when he realises how far out he is, and just how very deep the water is. His chance of survival diminishing with every wave that smashes over him.
The two combatants were oblivious to the skirmishes that were taking place around them in the light of the burning soldier, the only thing that mattered to Hiro was that he live, never had he craved something so badly. It is one thing to wield a weapon in training, striking at wooden marshalling posts and straw dummies with grace and ease and perfection; but when you are face to face with a living breathing opponent and one small blunder will cost you your life, well, that is another beast entirely.
And so they circled one another, striking and smashing when they could, blocking and dodging when they could not, their armour soaking up numerous blows. Yet neither one of them was able to land that decisive strike, the killing blow. Hiro remembered how weary he felt, and how his flaws were being mirrored by his opponent. And then finally a stroke of luck; the Shiho warrior, stumbled over an exposed tree root, and Hiro brought his sword down into his opponent’s un-armoured neck. Blood shot up into the dark as the soldier collapsed to his knees and fell onto his back. Hiro felt no victory in this. In fact he felt like he was going to vomit. He looked around him to see if any enemy was near. He was alone; the attackers had been overwhelmed by the soldiers of the Ryu.
He dropped his bloody blade on the ground and knelt reverently beside his fallen enemy. Hiro felt almost ashamed that he had done this to another human being. He did not hate this man; he did not even know him. Hiro felt nothing but revulsion for what he had done.
He realised that it could have easily been him laying there, his life’s blood pumping out into the forest floor to soak the roots of the trees.
He took the soldier’s helmet off and made him as comfortable as he could. The young man’s face was pale and splattered with gore; eyes wild and searching and filled with fear. Hiro took his hand and held it firmly, squeezing it to show the dying man that he would not have to die alone in a place so very far from his home. There was a sense of relief now in the young man’s eyes, and he squeezed back just as hard. There they were, two soldiers locked in the brotherly embrace of honour and duty, one the victor, sitting death watch on his fallen rival.
Hiro had cried silently when he saw the keep-sake around the man’s wrist. It was a little figure woven from barleycorn, obviously made by a child. That was the turning point for Hiro; he sobbed uncontrollably when he realised that he had killed not just a man, a soldier, an enemy, but a father. His tears dripped from his cheeks to mix with the blood of the dead soldier. Hiro looked at the face. He would remember it forever; it was seared into his brain now, and he would never forget that evening.
He let go of the hand and folded the dead man’s arms over his chest then reached out and closed the man’s eyes. He said a prayer for the soul of the departed while he slid the barleycorn memento from the man’s wrist onto his own. He would wear it to remind him that no life should be taken lightly. It should be a last resort only. Such is the way of Bushido.
He stood and dried his eyes. He picked up his bloodied blade with trembling hands and cleaned it absentmindedly then returned to the smouldering remains of the camp.
 Life is made up of firsts: Your first love, your first command, your first day of being man and wife, the birth of your first child. All these are beautiful and poignant and make us human. But as a man it is your first kill you remember the clearest, and that is what makes us warriors, Hiro thought. Or did it really? Did it not just drive the light of humanity further away in to the dark of endless cruelty and brutality? Did it not just kill all that was good inside you?
 But that was the sacrifice you made in order to bring calm to the isles of Jwar, Hiro had come to understand.
Hiro realised that he had been staring out into the garden; he looked at his son and saw that he was asleep. He smiled to himself again and lent forward to kiss him on the cheeks.

 “I will be home soon son. That I promise,” he whispered to the sleeping boy. In the morning he went to war.

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