"Life for Life"

Chapter 1

262 SK, Cycle of the White Dawn

Lord Eguchi stood on the balcony of his castle looking out over his lands. A white blanket dusted the clan’s territory, from the Forest of the long Night in the East, running down the course of the Wild River to the West and ending at the high cliffs of the Azure Sea in the South and the impenetrable Ro-Kan Mountains in the North. Tsuneo Eguchi was content. As he surveyed his clan’s holdings, his thoughts turned to the opportunities that were still to come to expand their honor and lands in the years of his reign as daimyo. He turned at the sound of the Shoji screen to the balcony opening, there in the doorway stood his new bride Kaeda, a beautiful creature, good natured and honest but also quick of wit and a good negotiator, just the sort of Lady his clan would need to hold their own in the notoriously cut throat courts of Jwar.

 

273 SK, Cycle of Rebirth

Lord Eguchi paced his great hall, the shouts and cries of pain echoing through the castle made his samurai and servants nervous for there was little air about the night and the birth was lasting longer than usual. Priests attended and whispered prayers but still the labour lasted through the day and long into the night. Tsuneo paced, his face a mask of concern, lost deep in his thoughts as he circled his hall. And so it continued until suddenly and without warning the painful cries ceased. The castle fell into silence, none dare move as Lord Eguchi stopped in the middle of the great hall. His head bowed, his eyes closed shut. Then the sound of footsteps echoed down through the halls, quickly then slowing, breaking the silence much to the relief of all within the cold stone walls. After what seemed like an age the shoji to the hall slid open and there in the murk of dawn stood Daichi, chief advisor of the Eguchi daimyo. No guard dared chance a look to ascertain the outcome of the day’s events. Slowly Daichi moved towards his daimyo. Only when he passed into a corridor of light cast by Lord Moon could the blood, that covered his kimono, be seen. Once within proper distance he prostrates himself into a deep bow, head to the floor before his Lord. Tsunseo knew before he asked, but needed to hear it.  

“You bring news of my son?” He asked, opening his eyes but not moving.

Eventually and with his voice trembling Daichi answered “My Lord, your son is lost!”

The only sound in the great hall was that of Tsuneo’s tears falling onto the waxed floorboards.

 

274 SK, Cycle of the White Dawn

Lord Eguchi, sat crossed legged on the Dais situated at the head of his hall. Around him stood a handful of his closest samurai, standing unmoving, ever watching although they could play no part in the drama of the night.

Lady Kaeda had quickly recovered and fallen with swollen belly again and after many prayers and cleansing ceremonies the priests of Eguchi had spoken of good omens and signs from their ancestors that this would be a strong child and worthy of the Eguchi name.

Still when it had started and Lord Eguchi had retired to his hall he could do nothing to dispel the ill feeling in the pit of his stomach. All he could do was wait and hope. And so he sat quietly in his great hall, the cries of his Lady flooding the castle.

After what seemed like forever, the crying ceased and the castle fell once more into an uneasy silence. But for the gentle rapping of the wind on the shutters not a man or beast broke the silence. Then, faintly at first but becoming gradually clearer the sound of footsteps could be heard in the old stone keep. Thinking back a guard present would comment to his wife, that even then there was a weight and burden in the steps and that he had known the tragic news before the shoji had slid open and Daichi, the Lords adviser had entered. He had thought that Lord Eguchi had heard the woe in Daichi’s footsteps also as there was a long time before he asked the question, he almost could not, to his servant bowed before him.

“You bring news of my son?” His voice flat and deep, his eyes fixed, staring into nothing.

“My Lord, the Kami have born him to next life,” Daichi whispered, face to the wooden floor with a voice filled with sorrow and regret at being the messenger of such news.

“Leave me!” Tsuneo’s voice was commanding and did not waver. The samurai guard slowly turned and filtered out of the hall. Only Daichi stayed. Tsuneo looked down.

“Am I no longer your Lord, that you refuse my direction?” Stated with more anger than he had intended.

“No my Lord, I live to serve,… it’s just Lady Kaeda has requested your presence,” came Daichi’s quick reply.

Tsuneo entered his chamber just as the last servants scurried away down the hall with blood soaked sheets and buckets from cleaning the chamber, secretly relieved to be away from the scene.

Tsuneo paused for a moment, noticing his hand shake slightly as he moved to slide the door open. Stopping he closed his eyes and quickly performed a breathing exercise his first sensei had taught him to help clear his mind before battle. Opening his eyes and taking a deep breath he slid open the screen door and entered his bedchamber. A single torch illuminated the room casting shadows onto the walls. In the centre of the room lay, in a pile of cushions mounted on their futon, his beautiful wife. She looked asleep and but as Tsuneo approached she turned to look at him. Her eyes were a well of sorrow, her pain tangible in the still air.

“My Lord, I fail you for a second time, I am not strong enough to bear you an heir……. Please I cannot live with the dishonor I bring you…….. Let me end my life so that you might find one more worthy?” She said barely able to speak through her sobs.

Tsuneo crossed the room in a few quick and decisive steps, taking a knee beside his Lady. He reached out and cupped her lithe and gentle hand in his large and gnarled fist. With the other he softly raised her chin so that their eyes met. Looking at her large doe like eyes in the lamp light, glazed from many tears and her perfect porcelain skin set against jet black hair, Tsuneo knew she was honourable. He could not grant her request. He would not betray her to his own ego.  

 

274 SK, Cycle of the Lonely Moon.

Tsuneo was content he had made the right decision in refusing Kaeda’s request and she had rewarded him by falling with child within weeks of that unfortunate night. Still Tsuneo had heard the rumours and the whispers in the Court at Ryu. The other clans might see his heirless clan and use it as an excuse to attempt to steal the Eguchi lands. He had seen lands annexed using such spurious excuses before. He could imagine the claims put forth to the Shiho Shogun by the Takashi now;

“The ancestors have decreed the end of the Eguchi, clearly shown by the refusal to extend their line, we must reclaim their lands for fear of further insulting the ancestors!” The words would roll off Katashi Omura like honey, thick and sticky.

Still, if this child was born the matter would be dealt with unequivocally, slamming the door on any suggestions of weakness in his blood and clan. However great his desire for the child to be born there was simply no way to ensure the unborn would not be taken to his ancestors like his brothers before him.

The matter would be decided any day now and the simple fact was that there was nothing Tsuneo could do. He could not stay in the castle and had instead decided to stretch his legs and air his thoughts in the mountains behind his keep.  It was the Hour of the Cockerel but already Lady Sun had retired from the sky, not usual for this time of year. The snows had not yet come but would soon and if war were to come to his door then the armies of the Dragon would not march until at least the Cycle of Rebirth, this at least gave him some thinking time.

 So deep in thought was Tsuneo that he almost fell over the old woman sat with her back to him in the quiet mountain path. Startled Tsuneo jumped back and instinctively his hand went to the tsuka of his katana always tightly held close in his obi. There he stood while he took in the scene before him. Crouched in the path was a small but definitely human shape of a woman. He guessed she was old by the long grey hair that crept out of the shawl she had wrapped around her bent and fragile form. Slowly and uneasily the woman stood, still with her back toward Tsuneo. She was heavily bent over and in one wizened and clawed hand she clutched a very old and worn looking cane to support her weight. She pushed up on it as she rose from her crouched position. Then, and with some apparent difficulty she began to turn. Shifting her facing jerkily, eventually she faced Tsuneo, although he could not make out her face such was the angle of her bent back. Rough cloth was shrouding her head and shoulders, the worn and ripped cotton draping to the floor concealing her legs and feet. The state of her dress and unkemptness made Tsuneo take an involuntary step backwards, something he had not done for many years and then only in the presence of his father or the Shiho Shogun. In fact her whole demeanour made Tsuneo very uncomfortable, only the firm grip with which he grasped his sword did something to steady the knot forming in his gut.

“Who are you old crone?” Tsuneo said trying to sound commanding although the shake in his voice betrayed him.  

“Who I am? Does not matter. How am I here? No consequence.” Came the reply in a deep croaky voice from under the shroud, sounding utterly more confident and assured than Tsuneo had expected. The fact she was within his lands in this rough and rugged place, seemingly unarmed and unafraid worried Tsuneo deeply, but her obvious disregard for protocol and etiquette angered him slightly as he stood there, his question unanswered and his stroll interrupted. But before he had the chance to challenge the strange old hag again, she spoke.

“What you should have asked?” Leaving the question hanging a moment for effect before answering herself.

“Is Why, am I here?” With this she started to hobbled closer. He was feeling like he was losing control of the conversation but at the same time wanting to know more, so against his better judgement he replied.

“Very well, why you are here?” He questioned, standing straighter in his stance. Not that the hag could see above his knee but it made him feel more secure.

“For all your servants and samurai, those sworn to serve you with their lives you do not have control of the one life you desire. You lack the power over the life most important to you Lord Eguchi.” She replied, circling Tsuneo slowly, her cane clicking on the stones of the path as she edged around him.

“Careful, old crone, for I am the Lord of these lands, suggest my weakness and you will be rewarded with steel.” Tsuneo answered, narrowing his eyes and twisting his hips and neck to keep eyes on the woman, his hand never leaving the hilt of his sword.

She chuckled.

“Your lands?” Another chuckle. It was a sound like a crow’s call but it made Tsuneo feel cold and afraid to his core.

“Life for Life.” Clearly and crisply and in a voice devoid of the mocking tone it had held only moments before.

“Life for Life?” Tsuneo echoed as much to himself as in answer.

“Life for Life.” She answered, now standing parallel to him and moving away. Quickly and faster than Tsuneo had imagined possible for her she turned.

“I make this offer only once, Life for Life. Answer now Lord of the Land,” the cruel mocking tone returning slightly. As she spoke the final part she raised her head just a fraction and Tsuneo glimpsed a toothless mouth, save two black rotten teeth. Hairs and warts speckling her chin and what Tsuneo thought might be a spider before the shawl hung back to cover it.

“How do I know you are trustworthy,” Tsuneo questioned, not realising he was shifting away from the crone once more.

“You have my word, now answer me, Life for Life, Yes or No,” The voice became more commanding, and resonated off the mountain around them, it felt to Tsuneo as if the sky had spoken.

“Yes,” was Tsuneo’s reply after a long wait. At that moment the cries of a woman entering labour pierced the night from the castle below. Instinctively Tsuneo turned. In that moment he realised his mistake and spun back to face the mysterious character. It was too late, she had disappeared. Tsuneo looked around for a moment or two and even questioned if the encounter had taken place before another cry from his wife’s labour broke his brooding. Quickly and with a nervous energy fuelling him he took off at pace back down the path towards his keep and his fate.  

Chapter 2

The path was broken and rugged, but the adrenaline coursing through his veins meant it did not slow or impede his progress. Within a quarter hour Tsuneo was entering the garden of his keep through a small and well concealed entrance. The solitary guard, stood watch, bowed and unlocked the gate as he saw his master’s approach.

Entering the garden Tsuneo heard something that made his blood freeze. In his effort to return to his castle in quick time he had not noticed the brief ceasing in the sounds of labour that had summoned him from his walk and strange meeting on the mountain path. Now the sound that pierced the air and stung the hearts of those who heard it was not that of a woman bringing new life into this world. It was a scream of fear, a scream that, the moment it reached Tsuneo’s ears filled him with dread and foreboding. Pausing only for a second before the second scream, followed by a third and fourth rang out shattering the tranquillity that the pristine gardens of Sagoya Castle usually offered.

Vaulting the ancient stone steps that led into the great hall two at a time, he flew through the castle like a whirlwind, blowing aside aides and doors alike such was his fear. Crashing through the shoji barring the entrance to his chamber, he almost fell over a young servant girl curled weeping with her head in her hands. As he recovered his balance he scanned the chamber. The futon he shared with his wife sat in the middle of the room, there in its centre propped up with a dozen cushions lay Kaeda. He knew she was dead. To her side surrounded by a variety of clay pots and towels, sat in a mixture of water and blood his trusted advisor Daichi knelt. Tsuneo closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment before crossing the room in three purposeful strides.

As he drew nearer he noticed the look on his wife’s beautiful face; a mask of sorrow and horror. He knelt and touched her lithe hand, he knew the risks of touching the dead but he needed to be sure. As soon as he touched her cool, damp skin the cold hard truth was confirmed to him.

“I am sorry my lord,” whimpered Daichi.

After a moment and without taking his eyes off of his departed wife or releasing her hand he answered.

“It is the way of the Great Kami, see goes to our ancestors and does so with the honor of knowing she has done her duty.” He said with a heavy heart, not betraying the empty feeling he now felt in his chest.

“Forgive me my lord,” Daichi continued; kneeling deeply, head bowed his arms outstretched before him. In his grasp a bundle of cloth.   

With the sight of his dead wife Tsuneo had forgotten the circumstance with which he had come upon the terrible scene. His child, his heir was born. Taking his feet again and turning to the kneeling Daichi, Tsuneo reached out and took the bundle from his teacher and friend, stepping away towards the balcony. It was much heavier than he would have expected.

“My Lord….” Daichi’s voice breaking before he was able to finish.

Tsuneo did not hear him, he was already thinking on the price Kaeda had paid to bring him his heir.

“My Lord….. I am sorry….. The boy…..” Daichi said again, this time louder before his grief cut him short.

This Tsuneo heard. There he stood in the grey light of dusk. He looked down, the bundle seemed to have doubled in weight. He adjusted his stance to rest the weight in the crook of his arm, freeing up his other. Slowly and with some trepidation he began to unravel the bloody bundle in his arms. All in the room was silent bar the sobbing of the girl by the door. Tsuneo didn’t see the pained look in Daichi’s eyes as he watched on as his master stripped away the layers to gaze upon his son.

Tsuneo could not prevent the sharp intake of breathe as he looked upon the misshapen and deformed features of his first born. As if sensing the rejection forming in his father’s mind and heart the boy let out a cry. Not the cry of a child but a low moan, in doing so his long and snake like tongue licked the damp castle air. He stretched and in doing so broke his father’s grasp with his powerful little limbs.

Dumb struck Tsuneo took a step backwards, a look of shock and horror slowly creeping over his face as he stared down at the creature sprawled in the mess of cloth at his feet. Again the low moan erupted from its lungs; the sound made the servants crouched in the corners of the chamber and Daichi flinch as if they had been struck.

Starting in his stomach and erupting like a volcano a shout of such fury it made the foundation of the castle shake;

“OUT…Get Out!”

The servants and Daichi need no further instruction and quickly scurried from the chamber and away from the grief of their Lord. Daichi the last to leave turned at the last to pull the broken Shoji back in place to allow his Lord privacy in this, his darkest moment. He glanced only briefly into the room to see his Lord roughly grab the misshapen child from the floor by a fat, stumpy leg. His face, Daichi would never forget.

Storming out onto the balcony, his grief replaced with a rage of terrible fury. It burned in his heart and clouded any sound judgement his mind and soul might offer. Nearing the ornately carved balcony edge Tsuneo leaned back and dropping his weight onto his back leg.

“Stop!” The voice broke through Tsuneo’s rage and was as clear as the air of the Azure Sea. The tone was commanding and clear, halting Tsuneo immediately.  It was as if an invisible hand gripped him, his muscles strained against the unseen captor but to no avail.

It was all he could do to turn his head. There, just out of arms reach in the shadow to his left stood the form of the hag he had seen only that night on the mountain path.

She turned and he was now able to see her face as the shawl was pulled back and hung over her twisted shoulders. Her face was as old as any he had seen in his days, her long white hair only partially covering the bald patches of her blotched and flaky scalp. Her skin deeply wrinkled, hung loosely from her strangely sharp features. Her nose bulbous and misshapen, her mouth slightly open, revealing the blackened, rotten teeth within. It was her eyes though that froze Tsuneo and sapped him of his last ounce of strength. Black as jet and deep as the night sky, it seemed she saw right into his broken soul.

“You throw away the gifts you paid such a price for?” She questioned slowly, her gaze scrutinizing him from head to toe. Shuffling with some apparent difficulty towards him, passing out of the shadow which seemed to blend with her body as though she were part of it.

Tsuneo fell to his knees as the unseen captor released him from its vice like grip. He was just able to extend his hands to prevent his face meeting with the cool stone of the balcony floor.

He was exhausted; tapping into his last reserves of energy he pushed himself to his knees and looked up at the crone who was now stood within touching distance.

“Why do you not answer me, Lord of this Land?” She mocked cruelly, a wicked smile spreading across her ancient lips.

“It was a trick,” sighed Tsuneo, hanging his head in shame and resignation that his desire for an heir had cost him not only his honor but Kaeda’s life. 

“Not a trick…… a bargain……. Life for Life,” she stated looking around the balcony. Reaching out with a clawed hand she extended her long index finger, raising Tsuneo’s face with a yellowed nail under his chin.

“I gave you a life, and claimed one for me,” pointing first at Tsuneo’s son, laying with a confused look on the floor next the Tsuneo, then to the chamber, and the futon where Kaeda lay.

“That was the arrangement,” she said as she returned her attention to Tsuneo knelt before her, smiling to herself contentedly.

“This is not what I wanted…. This abomination….This thing,” Tsuneo wept, his tears rolling down his cheeks and splashing onto the stone. He did not know how long he had knelt, head in his hands weeping, for his lost wife, the end of his line, his stupidity, his honor. Eventually the broken Lord Tsuneo Eguchi stood. He cast a glance about the now deserted balcony. The Hag and the thing were gone. He turned towards his bed chamber saying one last prayer with the hope his acts had not cursed Kaeda’s soul as well as his own. Then turned to look out over his lands, drew his Wakizashi, knelt silently and without a noise pushed the blade of his family deep into his stomach and across.