I must make it all clear, and yet to say it simply obscures everything. I killed our master, I left his bleeding corpse in the cold for you to find the next morning, I took the sword. Shall I inscribe in detail the fight, and would detail reveal the truth? They wrote a song about me, some poor bard was in the town I saved. I’ve killed those who were good to me, and the sons of strangers sing for joy of it. The foolish lyrics go something like this:
Let me sing of a hero,
his name unknown,
whose steel shines like a bright star.
When the bandits came to raid,
after the rain,
we feared, for we could not pay.
But the storms brought him to us.
He sought shelter
from the sinking mud outside
Warmed by fires of an inn,
he pitied us,
and became a protector.
Nothing said in the song is false, and to it new verses are birthed every day. It’s the verses that will never be written, verses you and I share, whose haunting refrains I hear echoing when I search for sleep. A darker tune, more dirge than ballad, that makes me lie wakeful upon my bed, or pace all through the night. I’m locked forever in the past.
That morning, when the empire was just an invading army, when we little knew we were on the cusp of victory, we rose with the dawn. The three of us, without speaking a word, practiced the twelve forms. It’s funny when I think of it, I’ve forgotten the forms these last three years. Our long shadows seemed too big for us, stretching over the armies like great black giants.
We came to the penultimate move and froze, waiting for our master to throw the final punch. My legs shook under the strain of holding the lunge, our master’s regular breath sounding no different than if he were merely sitting down to tea. I wished he would stop breathing and just complete the form. Again it’s funny, that evening I would end his breath for good. What was it he said? It was so startling because no one was allowed to talk, no one.
Looking over his shoulder at us, he began, “The teachings I taught you are of an old tradition, older than anything I know. It represents a long uncountable chain of masters and students, a history leading us to this point,” he said, punctuating the statement by turning his face once more forward. After a pause, he went on, “Leading us to the present, and directing our future.” At this he threw the punch, and we followed suit.
In that pristine winter morning, white steam billowing off our bodies like fog rolling over mountains, we three turned, facing each other in a loose circle. We were once more ensconced in silence, our master seemingly reverting to his stoic and tight lipped manner. But again, the mask broke.
His mouth opened, his white breath momentarily covering his face, “We are servants of Alexander.” He looked at each of us, his customary hard frown replaced with an unprecedented soft smile. “I have trained you into the finest soldiers in his army, maybe in any army. You both are my legacy, dedicated disciples, each one worthy of becoming the new master. Stay here,” he said, traipsing off into the snow. We watched him ducking into his tent, my mind madly racing like a schooner around a whirlpool, circling ever closer the memory of the slave Lazarus. What was he going to say? I kept asking myself. What had I kept him from saying?
I think you had the presence of mind to stand at attention, because our master snapped at me as he came back, “Stand up straight, Gakuto.” I brought my feet together, folding my hands behind my back. He had his sword sheathed, holding the blade before him upon his outstretched palms the way a priest might carry an open Bible.
“The sword will have to choose you, one of you,” he began. “I cannot.”
I sometimes wonder if that’s not part of all this, why you’re chasing me. The sword chose, and it picked me, didn’t it? Whatever else I’ve done wrong, the sword didn’t pick you. It betrayed our master in the end. I had a small bag of supplies strapped across my shoulders, sneaking away from the revelries.
As the fireworks burst overhead, my shadowy path was enlivened with brilliant colors. The white snow was ready to imitate these, willing to succumb to the ever shifting heaven. Are people so different? A new king comes and they change accordingly, reflecting whatever color is the brightest.
“We have a covenant of blood with the sword,” he said, repeating the same that fateful evening, calling me from my path. I turned around facing him, his sword sheathed at his waist. Swiftly, it was unsheathed, its edge whistling through the air. It glinted in the sun that morning, and its polished steel was awash in the green fires fading away in that night sky.
He spoke to us as he swung the curved blade around our heads. “It is your duty,” he shouted when I would not return. “You’re a bulwark against the chaos,” he told us, stopping the razor sharp blade so close to your neck I thought he must have hit you.
I drew my dagger, “I’ve done my duty,” I shouted into the cold. “and I’m done being a slave.”
I decided then, I would die. I understood Lazarus, I knew what he was saying. We rushed each other, our driving steps kicking up clouds of snow behind us. Catching the deadly swipe of the sword in my knife’s guard, I threw a kick at his knee. Jumping backward, he let my reckless leg fly into the air. Over the slippery snow, my planted foot slid, and I crashed to the floor. This was it, I was helpless, he had me.
But I kept sliding, my momentum carrying me into our master’s shins. It seemed to take both of us by surprise, for he had brought the sword down where my head had been, leaning forward slightly. He smote the icy earth, and his weapon stuck. I crashed into his feet, and toppled him. He fell on me, and my knife was ready. As I rolled his bleeding and limp body off of me and into a snow drift, I sat up upon my knees. The cold flakes, freshly falling, burned my scarred face. He reached a hand out to me, brushing my cheek with his fingers. “Gakuto,” was all he said.
So there, the sword chose me, we made a covenant of blood. I rose to my feet, the front of my shirt stained with the spilt life of our master. Coiling my hand around the sword’s handle, I set it free with a jerk. Into the night I fled.