Excerpt from Chapter One
The battle was over, but still Kazuteru ran. He had duty to fulfil. The young samurai ignored the howling of his lungs and the ache within his muscles and bore forth his sacred burden: a dagger the length of his hand. His Lord awaited it at the top of the valley.
It had rained all day yesterday and most of the morning too, an anomaly in the high summer. The sun shone bright now, but too late. Hundreds of feet and hooves had trampled the sodden slope and churned it into a swamp. Kazuteru’s armour and underclothes, which had once been a brilliant blue, were now a mottled grey, and his legs were heavy with plastered clay and turf.
His hands alone were clean, protected as they had been under gauntlets and gloves. Bared, the flesh had remained immaculate enough to hold the dagger. But the humidity and the layers of metal, cloth and wood he wore had made his entire body slick with sweat. It stung his eyes and he could taste it on his lips, and when the ground gave suddenly beneath him as he ran, he felt it on his hands also. His wet palms fumbled, and the dagger slipped from his grasp.
The blade caught the light as it fell. It winked white once at him, and then plunged into the slimy dirt and vanished with a sad little sound. Kazuteru let a smaller, sadder whimper escape him. His waiting Lord had a thousand swords and spears with him already, but they would not suffice. They were not ceremonial and pure. The dagger, which had been, was now sullied.
He fell to his knees, and plunged his left hand into the muck. It vanished up to his wrist. He began to grope blindly, hastened by desperation but slowed by fear of the blade’s edge.
Something to his right moaned suddenly, a pained voice so pitiful that it stopped Kazuteru. He saw a man twisted where he had fallen, one leg so shattered and bent that his toes almost touched his hamstring. The samurai had no mind left for words; his eyes pleaded Kazuteru to kill him, and for a moment he thought to oblige.
But then Kazuteru realized that he wore the red of the enemy, and for that he left him. The man’s agony was but one voice in dozens.
His fingers touched blunt metal. He pulled the dagger free, and filth came with it. Kazuteru tried to wipe the blade clean as best he could. Once when he was a child – too young to know about sacrilege – he and his friends had hidden a small cast-iron Buddha in an ox’s feed just to see if the beast was too stupid to notice. It had been, and three days later they had found the Buddha again. Looking at the dagger now, he was reminded of that serene, shit-smeared face.
Water. He needed water.
But there was none here, save for that which had soaked into the ground; this was where the fighting had been. There was no time to return to their distant camp, where he had just run to collect the blade in the first place. The only place he could look was up the slope, towards the valley top they had stormed not one hour ago.
He began to run towards the hilltop once more, skidding and stuttering in the mud, dagger in his filthy left hand with his right hand held high and free of any contamination. Ahead of him, overlooking the entire valley, Lord Kanno’s castle burned. One of the smaller curved roofs groaned loudly, and then collapsed inwards. A ragged cheer carried on the distant breeze, and a fresh billow of black smoke erupted into the sky.
There, in the corner of Kazuteru’s eye – a mangled man lying against a barricade of bamboo stakes, seemingly drunk as he fumbled about himself. His numb hands were trying to put a canteen to his lips. Clear water dribbled from the mouth of the ray-leather bladder, catching the light.
Kazuteru hesitated, his conscience caught, but it was clear the man was beyond any help that water could possibly bring. He squelched to his knees beside the samurai, and tried to take the canteen. The man held on stubbornly.
‘I need that water, friend,’ said Kazuteru gently.
‘W’tr?’ mumbled the man, his eyes distant. Still he tried to remember how to drink, still his hands corpse-tight upon the canteen.
‘Our Lord Shinmen requires it,’ said Kazuteru.
‘F’r Lord Shinm’n,’ the man said. Out of instinct alone, he obeyed that name and released his grip. His eyes closed, some- thing that wasn’t blood or water bubbled out of his mouth, and then he died.
Kazuteru muttered his thanks to the man’s departing soul as he began to slowly pour the water on the dagger. It was not quite enough, one clod of black mud remaining. There was nothing else to do but stick his tongue out and lick it clean, and then he knew the taste of the battlefield. He spat, and then the dagger was as clean as it was going to get. Back it went into his pristine right hand, and then he ran once more.
Child of Vengeance by David Kirk is published by Simon & Schuster in hardback on 7 March 2013.