The samurai were locked in battle with the warrior monks of Nara. Shindara was stunned by how well the monks were faring. That is, until he realized the Taira samurai were unarmed.
They couldn’t raise a sword or bow in their defense, otherwise they surely would have. Shindara’s masters were butchering the Emperor’s messengers at their doorstep. Those who weren’t quick to flee were forced to their knees and beheaded.
Once more, Shindara’s hand drifted to his sword. He often watched the monk soldiers train in the temple courtyard, so he knew how to handle a blade as deftly as his peers. As a scribe, it was laughable that he could put his skills to use, but he would have gladly plunged into battle with his companions if his heart called him to do so--except his heart screamed at him to stay hidden in the tall grass.
There was no glory to be found in the massacre outside the gates. This was the carnage and cruelty that his teachers often said shouldn’t exist in the mortal realm.
“Why?” he growled. When the last of the samurai were dragged into Nara, he crawled through the field. There was no telling if a vigilant archer would flick an arrow in his direction if he peered above the grass. It wasn’t hard to manage the journey on his hands and knees, despite the numbness in his bones.
As he prepared to break free from cover, a figure reared up from the side. A blade swung at Shindara’s head. He tore his tachi free and batted it aside. His posture was weak and his footing was uneven as a curved blade thrust at his knees. Shindara raked his sword across and kicked him in the chest, flattening his opponent for the killing blow.
The pitiful cry stopped Shindara before he could throw his weight behind the blade. Astonished, he stumbled back from his opponent. Instead of a Taira soldier, he was facing down a monk from the temple.
“Priest Kobo!” Shindara said, helping him to his feet. “I saw the samurai advancing on Nara under the cover of the forest. I would have come sooner, but my horse fled--”
“Why is a scribe crouching in the fields while we’re under attack?!”
Shindara bit his lip as he scoured the battlefield and the growing pile of bodies. He couldn’t possibly fathom the chain of events that had been set in motion by his teachers.
“I’ll escort you past the gates and see you as far as Todai-ji Temple,” Kobo said, catching his breath. “Don’t think of leaving Nara again.”
Those ominous words rang in his head once the city gates shut behind him. He was immediately enclosed by armed guards and archers returning from battle. He was jostled forward as the crowd swelled behind him in a surge of adrenaline and barely constrained rage.
Shindara wavered in his path when he heard wails of agony rising above the turmoil. He saw the last of the samurai being dragged through the streets toward the temple of Kofuku-ji. Several priests followed the procession as they carried the severed heads of the executed Taira.
For a speck in time, Shindara’s mind was void of all emotions except one. Betrayal. He felt sickened to his stomach as he considered how their heads would be displayed around the temple grounds.
Hastened on by that thought, he fled toward Todai-ji with the monk by his side. The temple was located past the Great Southern Gate, a colossal wooden structure overlooking the courtyard.
The temple complex was an enclosure of pagodas, storehouses, ornate halls, and colonnades. Shindara spent more time in the imperial treasure house than any other building in the complex. On any given day, he would have been archiving the contents of the repository and recording artifacts dedicated to the Great Buddha.
Perhaps he spent too much time consumed in his private study of the Hell Scrolls. If he bothered to visit the lecture halls, he might have known more about the politics and schemes that led to this catastrophic day.
The thousands of monks who lived at Todai-ji would be on high alert and seeking counsel over the arrival of Japan’s most powerful clan.
“Why have they come for us?”
Kobo fingered the wooden prayer beads around his neck as they approached the southern gate. Despite his priestly robes and cowl, a tachi sword similar to Shindara’s hung from his waist.
“The temples sent monks to the Battle of Uji. We hoped to bolster the Minamoto clan’s claim to the throne, but they didn’t return. Instead, a messenger arrived with offerings of peace.”
“What happened to him?”
“The High Priest had him shaved, stripped, and sent back to the Taira.”
“This time they send unarmed samurai and we promptly cut them down to the last man. How will the Taira respond to this massacre? How many more times can we humiliate and kill their messengers before they take more aggressive action?”
“You forget your place, Shindara. Tonight our decisions will hinge on the will of the Great Buddha. No one is asking for the counsel of a common scribe.”
Shindara knew better than to question authority, but the time for neutrality had passed. Nara stood on the dangerous precipice of war from which there was no return.
Kobo sighed loudly, sensing the storm stirring in Shindara.
“The Taira have used their prestige to sow chaos in the capital. They have plundered the lands, confined and exiled public officials, and destroyed Buddhist principles on an unprecedented level. Their clan rivalry has weakened the ruling family. They forced the Emperor to abdicate and put an infant child on the throne. Nothing will satisfy their greed until all of Japan falls under their influence. Do you understand now why we have taken a stand against them?”
Shindara begrudgingly nodded.
“Who will rule over Japan instead if you had your way?”
“The third son of the Minamoto clan.”
“Minamoto Yoritomo? He was banished for his role in the Heiji Rebellion. You expect him to return from exile?”
“I don’t know. By the time word reaches him, we may be overrun by the enemy.”
Shindara shook his head in disbelief. He wasn’t concerned with his own safety so much as he thought of his wife, Aya. She had been the love of his life for as long as he could remember. He felt desperate to return home to her and hear her voice. She had been complaining of piercing aches for several days now. They knew the moment of the arrival of their firstborn child was almost upon them. Now Shindara’s excitement was dampened by visions of citywide destruction and reprisal.
“I can’t stay here,” he said. “I need to be with my wife.”
“Shindara! Where are you going?!” Kobo gripped him by the shoulder as he pivoted away. “You are needed at the temple. We stand on the brink of war and you think you can turn your back on us?!”
“Then what of my wife? You would have me abandon her before the city falls? What do you expect me to do when the samurai come to annihilate us?”
“You will be at my side to defend the temple.”
“My wife is expecting a child and she needs me!”
Kobo’s expression turned dour and his eyes glazed over.
“Your attachment to her is weakness. She will only bring you suffering.”
Shindara was at a loss for words. What could Kobo possibly hope to understand of his heart? The monk believed in discarding anything that connected him to earth and resulted in pain. For a man who was intent on dying sanctimoniously for a cause, it struck Shindara as pathetic--to flee from love and family because it might cause future pain. His hands shook and balled into fists.
“In other words, you are telling me to abandon her.”
Before Shindara could control himself, he turned to the priest with wide eyes.
“Bring her to me, Kobo. Or you will have one less man standing by your side when you die.”