“We live and die by the sword,” Mikoto said, facing the revelers with a frenzy in her eyes. Blood trickled down her face from where a piece of shrapnel had cut her. “As we all know, life can be cruel, short, and oftentimes meaningless. There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t reminded of this in some way. Sometimes I’m reminded by the smoke on the horizon. I’m reminded by the stench of rot wafting from a nearby battlefield. Or maybe I’m reminded of the fact that we have an infant child sitting on the throne.”
Most men knew better than to question the Emperor, let alone suggest rebellion. In the eyes of the masses, he was a direct descendant of divinity. Mikoto was in luck that none of her men had any use for the gods.
“I can no longer turn a blind eye to the suffering of Japan—to the farmers ground into dust under the heel of the Taira lords. To the mothers cradling their dead children in the streets of Nara. To the women treated as spoils of war. I cannot turn a blind eye and neither can you. I’m willing to shed blood, give blood, and ultimately sacrifice my life for a unified Japan. Who among you is willing to shed blood, give blood, and die on the battlefields by my side?”
She paced across the camp, meeting their eyes with intensity that could only come from a source of raw fury and determination.
“As we speak, a man named Minamoto Yoritomo is plotting his escape from exile. My spies confirmed he is still alive in Izu Province, twelve days’ march from here. He remains our best chance of cutting out the corruption infesting the capital. I call on all of you to safeguard his passage out of Izu. After his escape, we will await reinforcements from the Muira clan.
“Now is the time to take a stand against the Taira and tear them down from the throne, one way or another. I won’t think less of any of you if you leave my side, but tonight you must choose. Are we going to be a gang of bandits or are we going to form an army?”
Her fierce gaze swept across her men and not one of them shied away.
Without any urging, some of the men stepped forward to confront her. A beast of a man, enormously built and possessed of twice as much strength as any bandit, approached Mikoto.
Shindara watched him carefully but sensed no threat forthcoming. The look in Mikoto’s eyes also told him to stand at ease.
The gathering watched as the behemoth named Yamaguchi slammed his axe into the ground. He bowed low before Mikoto, hiding his face behind long, wet strands of hair.
“Before I joined your ranks, I was a poor leather tanner in a small hamlet,” he growled. “I was forced to live outside my village because of the defilement associated with my trade. A man who works with so much death is tainted, they say. My wife came to resent me and my sons were too ashamed to see me as their father. At one point, the people stopped calling me by my own name. They simply called me ‘untouchable.’
“When the Taia raided our countryside, rumors swirled around me. The people said I was making armor for rebels or harboring them in my home. It wasn’t long before the samurai attacked our village, taking what they wanted and destroying everything in their path. They didn’t even spare my accusers. We were all impure in their eyes. When they came for me, they tortured and killed my wife. Two of my sons were executed and the third…”
Yamaguchi wrung his axe as tears scorched the corners of his eyes, descending down the cracked surface of his face.
“The third was spared because he volunteered to fight for Taira no Kiyomori. I managed to escape, but not before my own son put an arrow in my leg. Days later as my wound festered, I came across Mikoto on the road.”
He looked up at her and was immediately comforted by the pride he saw in her face.
“I was deemed untouchable, but Mikoto saw something else in me. She didn’t even hesitate to give me a new name. My name is Yamaguchi now. She told me that I wasn’t a broken thing to be used and disposed of. I’m so much more than what the others say I am, and she promised to show me how. I will fight alongside you, dear friend, even if it means… even if I have to cut down my own son.”
Mikoto rested her hand on his shoulder, humbled by his loyalty. One by one, more men clambered forward to pledge their devotion to her—and by extension, the rebel Minamoto Yoritomo.
The men celebrated with rousing cries and blades raised high. It seemed Mikoto wasn’t alone in her hatred of the Emperor.
Shindara wondered how many of them included untouchables and disgraced samurai. The leather workers, the executioners, the butchers, and countless others stigmatized for their trade. More than a few farmers who abandoned undesirable land also followed Mikoto, but they belonged to an entirely different caste of their own. Together, they were the lowest of the low. Men that no one would think twice about spitting on or stepping over.
He froze at the sound of Mikoto’s voice. She grinned excitedly by the bonfire, extending her hand toward him. As he sighed and crossed the camp, he wondered if this was the moment he would finally be considered one of them.
Shindara moved past seas of men until he stood before her hypnotizing gaze. He felt more nervous standing in front of Mikoto than he did before all the high priests of Todai-ji.
“You’re familiar with inks and paper and knowledge and learning,” she said. “Perhaps you could educate our fine soldiers-to-be about what it means to fight in battle. What does history teach us about war? And most importantly, how do we win it?”
He knew there was more to the cunning look in her eyes. It was an unspoken agreement that now was the time to share his story with the men—about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Perhaps it was the common cause of war that suddenly bound them, but he didn’t see the customary fear in their eyes when they looked upon him.
“I lived through the siege of Nara,” he began quietly. “I should have died with the hundreds of monks whose heads are still rotting on pikes as we speak. Instead, another part of me died that night. I left behind a piece of my heart in the burning remains of Todai-ji Temple. A piece that will never be forgotten or replaced.”
As Shindara’s voice grew louder, more men came to gather around the fire and listen intently to his heart-wrenching tale. With every word spoken, he left behind the scribe that once toiled over books and treasures in the repository of Todai-ji. With every sentence, he painted a dark and hopeless picture of his pain and the suffering of all who fell victim to Sadato’s army. Shindara could feel his words weaving a tight, unspoken bond amongst the men. All were united in feeling like downtrodden slaves. All were united in fighting a corrupt government.
As Shindara’s towering figure was seen gesturing before the flames, the men screamed and cheered in raucous harmony for their newly discovered favorite rebel.
Keeping a close eye on him, Mikoto drifted into the mob of bandits. As Shindara’s voice rang out clear and commanding through the plain, she knew she found the man who would carry them into war.