Shindara wondered if there was a more beautiful feeling than riding a horse under the open sky. It didn’t even feel like its hooves were touching the ground as they were carried past slumbering maples and Shinto gates cloaked in white. Whether he imagined it or not, he was delighted to share this moment with Kenji.
Finally, he caught sight of several riders ahead and urged his horse faster.
“You seem awfully confident today,” Shindara said as he caught up to Mikoto.
“You might have noticed we aren’t encountering as many Taira in our travels.”
“Why is that?”
“They just suffered a defeat along the Fujigawa and are pulling their troops back. Some say they’re trying to suppress the threat of rebellion in their lands. The droughts and floods have destroyed their crops. And as we all know, famine is just a preface for rebellion.”
“This is the work of the gods, my friend,” Hachi cried, extending his hands to the sky. “Maybe if the Taira stopped burning temples, they wouldn’t have brought down the wrath of the Buddha.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Mikoto said as she mused over the idea. “The lands under the Minamoto clan are thriving while the Taira’s waste away. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage. A little superstition goes a long way.”
“Nevertheless,” Shindara said, “I wouldn’t lower our guard. Don’t forget the slaughter we survived in the mountains. The Taira are ruthless. They won’t retreat for very long. We may have defeated Lord Sadato, but there will be many more like him.”
Shindara clenched the reins a little tighter as he remembered Sadato. That man was single-handedly responsible for the siege of Nara and every death that ensued. Were it not for Sadato, his wife and child would still be alive today.
“How does it feel to finally be rid of that bastard?” Mikoto asked.
It was a question that Shindara had been asking himself since the events of that battle, and it was one that kept him awake late into the night. He didn’t regret killing him because he knew the world needed less people like Sadato. There was something else whirling around in his head and turning his thoughts against him.
“I would be lying if I said I was happy. It doesn’t feel as though Sadato’s death changed anything.” He gritted his teeth. “Does it sound terrible to say there’s a void inside me now that he’s gone?”
“That’s not for me to answer. You pinned all of your revenge on him. Now that he’s dead, you’re probably asking what you’re fighting for.”
“I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” Shindara said, as they ambled past a tangle of shrubs and thorns. “Why does wanting something always feel better than the moment when you finally have it? As soon as Sadato died, I felt as lost as a child. I felt abandoned and alone, as if I needed him to still be alive—as if I still needed someone to hate.”
“Maybe he gave you a purpose when you had none.”
“Hate isn’t a purpose. It’s a burden on our souls. Hate is the one thing that separates me from men like Sadato. Hate is the reason why we’re fighting this insane war.”
“If that’s the case, then take a good look at the men around you. You see that soldier carrying the spear? Do you think his heart is filled with hate? Of course not. It’s filled with hope because he can see a freer Japan. Many of us can, even if you don’t. We’re fighting for our freedom and hate has nothing to do with it.”
“I apologize,” Shindara said. “I meant no offense—”
“When can I fight?” Kenji asked. In that moment, Shindara realized there was one question more troubling than the ethics of revenge.
“The battlefield is no place for a boy.”
“But we could face the Taira any day now. There are more men like Lord Sadato out there—people who won’t take any prisoners.”
“Trust me when I say you aren’t ready. I spent years training with the warrior monks of Nara. It takes focus, instinct, control, and discipline. You can hone your body and your mind every day and night, but nothing prepares you for war. Absolutely nothing.”
“Then let me teach him,” Mikoto interrupted. “I’ll show him how to survive a battlefield. Take away all the warrior monk nonsense and you’re left with one simple truth. There’s nothing standing between you and death but a blade and the will to live. Did your monks teach you about that?”
Shindara wavered in his answer, too long for Mikoto’s liking.
“He has the right to defend himself, Shindara. And the road ahead will be riddled with danger.”
Hachi nodded enthusiastically.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Shindara wanted nothing more than to protect Kenji from the impending war. They were lucky to have survived this long without an attack from the Taira, but time wasn’t on their side. As soon as the famine receded, the samurai would throw all of their might at the rebellion. Anyone caught venturing with Mikoto would die by the blade or a hail of arrows. He couldn’t let that happen to someone as innocent as Kenji.
“Very well.” The boy’s face brightened with immediate joy. “But you’ll need a proper weapon. And no more lessons from Hachi.”
“Of course! When do I start?”
“Tomorrow,” Mikoto answered quickly. “We’ll start your training tomorrow.”
Daylight soon dwindled and the snow glimmered less. The sky was growing darker as dusk crept over the horizon. The hours they spent wandering through frozen creeks and glades were slowly coming to an end. All the while, Shindara could feel the Yomi calling out to him. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach, inviting him into the darkest parts of the forest. And yet, it seemed he wasn’t the only one to notice.
The horses shifted nervously as they approached a grove.
“Why have you stopped?” Mikoto barked at her soldiers.
“The horses refuse to go any further.”
“It’s the ghosts, I’m telling you. Even the horses can sense them out there, the spirits of the war dead.”
“Is it the spirits or is it your manhood?” Mikoto said bluntly. The men looked too sheepish to answer. With a scowl, Mikoto dug her heels into her horse and it lurched forward a few steps. She wrestled with the reins as the creature suddenly bucked beneath her. With a piercing whinny, it reared up and tossed Mikoto off its back.
To the surprise of her men, she took a rough tumble into the snow. Shindara was the first to reach her while the others were still clambering down from their horses.
“Mikoto, are you hurt?”
“No, no, I’m fine,” she said, looking slightly embarrassed as she clawed the snow out of her hair. “Very well… we can camp here for the night.”
“Camp here?” one of the warriors scoffed. “We may as well offer ourselves up to the ghosts.”
Shindara was surprised by the number of frightened faces surrounding him. These battle-hardened men were willing to clash with scores of samurai, but their courage faltered at the mention of spirits.
“Not ghosts. Yōkai. The Yomi is crawling with hundreds of guardian demons.”
“Then we mustn’t find the entrance,” an archer said, echoing the thoughts of countless soldiers around him. Before Mikoto could refute him, a sharp cry rang out.
“Damn it!” a warrior yelled as his horse bolted into the woods. “We shouldn’t be here! We need to turn back before it’s too late!”
“Don’t even think of it,” Mikoto growled.
The men clutched their swords as mutiny became more inevitable, and there was little Shindara or Mikoto could do to stop it.
Suddenly, Hachi hopped to his feet and screamed, “What’s the matter with all of you? Haven’t you ever seen a yōkai before?” A handful of men glanced at Hrioshango. “Not, not that one! I mean a true yōkai that can spread pestilence, curse your soul, and steal your face!”
“Well, actually—” Hrioshango began indignantly before he was cut off.
“This reminds me of the time I was wandering through a village with my sons—the Buddha rest their souls now. You see, word was getting around that the village elder’s wife had a secret lover and, naturally, being the most good-looking, fertile, and vigorous man of the rabble, the elder thought it was me! I was exonerated after a humiliating public spectacle… and when it turned out that the lady was missing, they insisted that I find this wife-snatching rogue and—”
Shindara felt a sudden tap on his shoulder. He turned around and was relieved to see Mikoto staring back at him.
“I need you and Kenji to follow me. I have an idea to keep the men from deserting.”