Thunder and Redness
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Through the warm darkness a bright white light blazed.
I opened my eyes immediately, for it was so powerful. After my journey throughout the fortress of Lord Tsunemoto, I returned to the small room and slept heavily the rest of the evening. I knew she was fine, yet I still had some concern, since I could not imagine her handling the situation on her own. It seemed odd that she would need little of my protection, and could trick the palace authority as Masashige and I had. The way she shoved me to the ground and placed the sword at my throat was incredibly skillful, as if she was a trained warrior.
A clap of thunder sounded and the wood and paper shoji screens trembled from its intensity. I could feel it prickling in my ear it was so loud. When I looked out the small window in the room, there were droplets of rain clinging to the glass and sliding off while more pounded against the window and the roof.
"Seems like we've got some weather. . ." I heard a voice behind me. I turned my head away from the window and saw Lord Tsunemoto standing in front of me. He was wearing tabi socks and a plain brown kinomo. I could see he had my Fugu Blade in his hands.
I bowed. "Hai.. . ."
He sighed and peered out the window.
"Well, it's not the best day for a picnic but a fine day for battle," he smiled and turned to me.
I could feel my doubts bubbling up inside of me, urging me to tell him that a rainy day was not the best day for battle, and that he was taking the wrong approach. I bowed and replied.
"Hai, Lord. . ."
He knelt down to where I sat and placed the Fugu Blade, sheathed in black lacquer, in front of me.
"You know, Haohmaru, a rainy day is perfect for an attack. All the heathens would be safe in their huts, warm by the fireside-or so they think. . ."
I merely nodded, yet silently opposing every word he said.
"Is there anything that I can do for you before battle? A prepared meal, a warm bath-perhaps a consort?"
"No, Lord. . ."
I could see his mouth twitch upward with the last words of his sentence, and I wanted to curse him. It made me cringe to think of her as one-it seemed so odd. The thought of her in a bed with some scurvy soldier or palace official made my spine shudder. But she would never let that happen.
"Are you sure-to relax your muscles beforehand?"
"I am fine. . ." I sighed, turning away from him and watching the rain streak down the window pane. Lightening flickered through the window. I blinked my eyes.
He placed his hand on my shoulder.
"You know. . ." he whispered, with a sly grin. I could feel his warm breath on my ear. It smelled of sake, "I have someone special for you. . ."
I peered over at him. He winked. My eyes narrowed; I tried to hold my saliva in my mouth so I wouldn't spit in his face.
"Perhaps it is best if I rest, my Lord. That is all. I just haven't been feeling as well."
"Oh," he replied. "I received a note from the doctor, that squirmy little fellow. He said that you were too ill to go to battle. You are in perfect condition-you seem so tense and angry and determined," he laughed from deep in his chest, "but when I asked the doctor about the note, he said that the did not write such a thing. I cannot have that-not in the situation I am in. I expelled him from the palace."
"My Lord-I told him to write that," I replied, feigning a cough. "I am afraid that I cannot fight my best when I am ill."
"I am the rule of the land," he sat up and began to pace around the room, scratching the stubble on his chin, "and my word stands higher than that of a little man's."
I sighed, resting my back against the paper-thin walls. He pivoted around on his right foot and left the room without a word.
Lord Tsunemoto returned a while later and fitted me for a uniform.
"Hmmm. . .you are about the same size as General Watanabe," he murmured to himself, scratching his chin. "A nice size. . ."
He gave me Watanabe's old clothes, the gold silk kimonos, the golden armor and all the lavish things that he owned. I removed my old clothing, tattered from long journeys. The haori that once belonged to my father lay in a meager heap along with my other clothes. I remembered him wearing it when I was younger, and he always looked so noble. Watanabe's haori and pants felt stiff and didn't yield much room for movement. The armor felt like a thousand weights upon my shoulders, and I could barely stand up straight. When I was smaller I had tried to wear Father's armor, but it was too heavy for me to even lift from the ground. Finally, I tied my long hair into tight, formal knot and placed the gold-plated helmet over my head. It felt a little big, but my bundled hair managed to help it fit.
After dressing, I walked out of the room, through the corridor, through the main room and out two large, wooden doors. A small boy about Kazuki's age rushed behind me and held a wide, red umbrella just as I walked outside. The rain drummed softly onto the waxed paper. I looked up at the sky, and it was the same solid color of gray-not one cloud. As I walked in my uncomfortable geta, I could hear the mud squish beneath my feet, and the boy guided me away from puddles.
I stopped to wait for Lord Tsunemoto. The boy behind me still held the umbrella. There was a puddle just a hair from my toes, and I bent over as much as the armor would allow and took a glance. I saw my face, and I felt as if different one stared back at me. It seemed so odd; I looked-I looked so honorable. The angle of the puddle made me appear tall and strong and commanding, for it was so low to the ground. It was how I looked upon Watanabe that day as I was lying parched by the stream, desperate for his help. Wearing a dead man's clothes sent a deep shiver through my spine. I bowed my head for the poor general. He had his time of honor and bravery. I scratched my head and wondered if this image in the puddle-this circumstance-was simply out of place or if it was destined to happen.
All of a sudden a horse hoof crashed into the puddle and scattered the water around. Some got on my pants and formed a dark stain. When I looked up I saw Lord Tsunemoto and another young boy gripping tightly the reins of a horse.
"Careful, boy. . ." Tsunemoto reprimanded, "We don't want to get our great leader all wet before battle. . ."
"Hai, Lord," the boy bowed to the daimyo and then to me, "Haohmaru-san, here is your horse."
He bowed again and scampered away.
The horse that stood before me was large and chestnut-brown, with a black mane. It was matted to its neck from the rain. He had a demure face with a thick white blaze running from the forehead to the nose. He snorted as he looked at me.
I placed my hand on the horse's back and my foot in the stirrup. Immediately the boy holding the umbrella rushed over to me and helped lift my mud-caked foot over the saddle. When I was amount, I held the reins tightly in my hands so the horse would not move. Everything seemed incredibly small. I had never been up on a horse before, and I felt even taller than everything around me. I could see all around-the noblemen, the court, the servants, the troops, and the maidens waving flags in the air, wishing us luck.
Lord Tsunemoto bowed to me again. He too seemed insignificant.
"Haohmaru-san," he sighed, patting my knee, "lead my troops into battle. Do not fail me, I beg of you, and do not run away. You must fight these heathens to the bitter end-or else the country will be lost. . .
"Hai, Lord," I bowed.
"Best of luck to you. Your father would be proud."
He turned away from me. Two more boys followed him, lifting his long robes to keep them from dragging in the mud. Another stood at his side with a large umbrella.
I turned around to muster my troops together and ordered them to line up around me in a semi-circle. I saw my comrades along with the other warriors: Masashige, Nakoruru, Galford, Sieger, Kazuki, Shizumaru, and Sogetsu. I looked around once more and did not see her anywhere; then I sighed and remembered that consorts did not go into battle. Glancing towards the palace, I envisioned her in there. I hoped that she would at least be safe, and I bowed, hoping that I wouldn't die before I saw her again.
I made a clumsy effort to turn my horse around to face the troops and bowed. They returned their greeting. For a moment I felt awkward, as if I were becoming the man that had once worn these clothes-as if his soul was seeping from them into my skin, revitalizing all that I had lost for all those years. That although I had never even been atop a horse or led a group of warriors-probably more trained than myself. But somehow I felt that I had been leading troops into battle for years, as if I was an experienced general who knew everything there was to know; in reality I had known nothing, no skills, no knowledge of the land. . .
Even though the armor was weighing down on my back, I tried to keep my back straight. I cleared my throat and began to speak to my troops. I did not want to prepare a long-winded motivational speech. I wanted to fight the battle and get it over with.
Right before I was about to clear my throat and begin my short speech, I saw another armored soldier ride in on a white horse and stopped right beside Nakoruru.
"Is. . .is everyone here?" I called out, trying to compete with the hissing rain and rumbling thunder.
"Today we are going to that palace on that yonder island," I began, pointing towards the slate-colored sea. "The man that lives there is disrupting our country and causing so much internal hate that Japan will implode. Our purpose is to fight that man. His name is Shiro Tosikada Amakusa-and he is immortal. . ."
All of a sudden a hush fell upon the troops following by a buzz of whispering. I sighed, knowing they thought it was ludicrous. The comrades which I had traveled with all the hard journey calmly tried to convince the others that it was indeed true. They probably knew that Watanabe had gone off to fight the man-but they didn't know what he had experienced.
"But this is nonsense!" one burly man spoke out. "Who has ever heard of such a thing?!"
"He is not really Amakusa. . ." I tried to explain, but the buzzing of the people became louder and louder and it seemed to whirl around me chaotic words words words. . .
"Will you HUSH!" I cried, holding my head in my hands, for I felt that it would spin off from my neck and join the rush of droning chatter that circled my head. I breathed out again and there was all silent, except for the soft drumming of the rain upon the leaves of trees.
"Let me explain," I tried to subdue the anxious warriors, who knew they had an inexperienced leader that would probably lead them to death, "the flesh and blood of Amakusa has died long ago, but his soul still remains, trapped inside another body. This is an evil power that I do not know how to overcome, but we must try. . ."
"It's quite simple!" the burly man interjected. "Just kill off anyone not of the True Faith of Japan. And then what will this Amakusa do?"
I sighed, thinking of Charlotte trapped inside the palace wearing perfume and eye makeup. She would have been enraged. I knew she was right, and I tried not to equate Christians with evil and cruelty. She was not cruel. Not at all.
"We should burn every Christian peasant village to the ground! The real garbage heaps that they are!" the man continued. "Burn every single one of the bastards!"
At first the big man seemed intimidating, as if he was trying to become the general. He continued to spout obscenities about the Christians, but slowly his words began to fade into the sound of the rain as my own thoughts drifted into my head. . .
Haohmaru come out and play!
I'm coming, Kumiko!
I found a kitten!
Wow let me see!
She's white and fluffy like snow with blue eyes.
Can I hold her?
Sure. . .be careful because she is only a baby. . .
No! I could not do it. I the last time I saw her was a time I wish that I never saw her. She did not deserve to die. I never knew why she did, but I saw her die. She invited everyone to play and never said a hurtful word.
It made me ill to think about what I was preparing to do. I felt incredibly dizzy and nearly toppled off my horse, about to lose my noble position. I imagined another girl standing outside her house, watching her neighbors and loved ones die as her town fell to the ground, crying. And if she lived through it would she become vengeful upon me, as I was vengeful upon Amakusa. And then I would have just as much evil as that bastard himself inside of me. And if that girl were to kill me she would deserve every drop of blood in my body spilled beneath her feet.
I tightened the reins on the horse and he began to trod lazily through the mud, snorting as he walked along. With all that armor and weaponry, I was a heavy load for him to carry. We left the palace. I glanced back once to see Lord Tsunemoto stood watching on a balcony, his noble robes gleaming with a dull sheen from afar. He stood with his hands stiff and folded in front, a stoical expression on his face.
As I passed the gate, I squeezed the horse's sides with my feet until it came to a fast gallop. Father had taught me how to control a horse when I was young, and I remembered that. We quickly entered the forests, and the green trees whizzed by. The burly man rode a large, black horse and approached me on my right side. He was riding right beside me.
"You must lead us to Shimabara," he demanded, his voice sounding rocky from the motions of the horse.
"Where is Shimabara?"
"It's the breeding ground for the Christian heathens. Keep going south until you reach the ocean, and when you approach a cluster of filthy huts, you are there," he grinned at me, revealing a gold tooth, "and I must say that straw burns quite well. . ."
When he turned away I glared at him, trying to control the saliva that formulated in my mouth. I faced the forest ahead of me, which seemed to get thicker and thicker with each beat of the hooves. Thick, black trees appeared to rush at me with full force and then barely avoid colliding with me, and the ground felt dusty, as gray dirt was swept into the air by the horses. I coughed on it and it stung my eyes as the sweat from my brow rolled down my face. While trying to stay atop the horse, I wiped across my eyes and hoped to see more clearly.
"It looks like there was a volcano around here," Sogetsu remarked. He was riding on my left side. "The air is quite ashy."
"Unzen-san, I assume," Masashige replied. "That's a mountain of death, I'll tell you."
"Mountain of death?" I asked.
"Hai. It spews lava that wipes out the whole town of Shimabara."
"Hmmp," the large man huffed, "I'll tell you it serves those heathens right."
I turned away from him and looked straight ahead. Sogetsu's expressionless face appeared in the corner of my eye, intent on riding.
He turned to me. "Say, Haohmaru. . .why isn't Charlotte with us?"
Surely he would have noticed, but he didn't seem to eye her the way he did before. I still felt qualms about attacking him that night at the springs, and I was both hesitant to talk to him and felt a need to be as cordial to him as possible.
"Lord Tsunemoto placed her with the consorts," I sighed.
He gave me an odd look. "The consorts? Why would he do that?"
"To suppress her I suppose."
"I am afraid that will not happen. Charlotte is too different."
I glanced at him. His eyes seemed dark blue in the shady forest, with a glint of warm purple. They seemed less empty and cold from when I first met him.
"Hai," I bowed. "She is different. . ."
He merely nodded back, as we rode further and further into the dark forest. . .
Masashige helped us navigate through the forest, and the sky became darker and darker as we advanced, and the air became saturated with the gray dust, forming filmy layers on out clothing and sticking to the sweat on our skin. The rain had subdued from earlier in the morning, but it was still not enough to wipe away the ash. The forest looked like a deathly gray winter, as the ash fell in delicate flakes and landed gently on our noses and on the manes of the horses. The stallion I was riding snorted from the falling somber wisps.
The air had become so thick that we could not gallop, for the dusty wind rushing towards us would irritate our eyes. So we rode slowly, our heads down, avoiding the falling ash. From the distance I heard a low rumble and the ground beneath us began to quake mildly.
"It seems Unzen-san is going to erupt again-very soon," Masashige remarked, his voice foreboding.
We all nodded. The mountain was visible in the distance, which was so high that the top was not visible; it was concealed by a thick, black cloud that encircled the entire black mountain, streaked with bright orange veins of lava. As we advanced the trees began to diminish and the coast appeared. Our horses strained with small pebbles caught in their hooves from the rocky coast, snorting and breathing heavily.
We stopped our horses when we reached the seaside and dismounted, allowing ourselves to rest before advancing to Shimabara. Everything that surrounded us was dark gray and black. The rocks that made up the coast were crumbly and sooty. I picked up a small one and could crumble it in my hand without any effort. Then I wiped off the residue on my pants. The sea that stood ahead of us thrashed violently against the rocks was also a deathly black, spraying hot water onto our faces. It looked like tar, thick and bubbling from beneath the surface while at the same time it frothed at the shore. The foam appeared dirty and gray. Even the sky was slate black, with a hint of blood red from the lava which slowly sputtered from the mountain. It stood high and omnipresent in the distance, a black monster rising from the sea.
And when I looked to my left, I could see Amakusa's palace-secluded on an island, growing high and dissipating into the dark clouds. He was in there, watching for us and waiting
"Shimabara is just across that ocean," Masashige turned to us and sighed. "I only know this place too well."
"But how are we going to get across?" one of the warriors asked. "It's preposterous to try and swim across that disgusting water."
"Indeed," another said. "It would swallow a man up."
"I suppose that we will have to ride around the coast and reach it, but that would take a while," Masashige said.
"I wouldn't swim across that water," the first warrior remarked. "I would rather commit seppuku than die from that witches' brew of an ocean."
"Precisely," an unfamiliar voice sounded, harmonious with the shadowy land surrounding us.
We turned around to face a tall man, clad in a black cloak that cascaded all the way down to the toe of his slick, black boots, its collar so high that nearly all of his mouth and nose were concealed. All of his clothing was the color of obsidian, just like the sea. Looking at him, I found it hard to distinguish him from the rest of the coast-he was like another black mountain, standing still and death-like before us. The only part of him that moved was his hair, which was long and black. It swayed lightly in the wind. The dark clothing brought out the paleness in his face. It was almost deathlike, as if he had been anemic all his life.
"Precisely," he repeated again, taking a few steps closer to me. His heavy boots crushed the rocks beneath. I grabbed the hilt of my sword and watched him very intently. "After all, I would rather be eaten alive by a shark than have to fall victim to the fissures. . ."
"The fissures?" Galford asked.
"Of course," the man replied, slowly pacing back and forth. His long cloak trailed behind him. "You see, the fissures are where the rock under the ocean breaks, and burning hot magma seeps through and touches your skin, hardening into black rock while it burns you alive and drags you under the ocean and then you drown. Not a pleasant way to die is it?"
He glanced at all of us, with eyes as black as coal. The air was completely silent, and for a moment the sea ceased beating against the rocks and the ground didn't quake.
He stepped closer. "Now I can offer to guide you through these waters, for I have a boat," he told us. "I understand that you have an important battle to fight."
"Of course," I stated. "Amakusa is going to die. He lives in that palace, very close by."
"And we are going to mutilate all of his followers so he has no way to defend himself!" the burly man declared.
"Amakusa doesn't need followers," the man replied, his voice deep and mysterious, "he has more power than all the men in the world. . ."
"So you know about him!" Nakoruru interjected. "People think that we are fools for what we believe."
"Of course," he answered quietly. "He is immortal."
"So you know. . ." she answered.
"Of course. . ."
His words faded into the ashen air and the rumbling earth. Then all was silent save for the crashing sea. We stared at him and silence and he stared back at us with eyes, blacker and richer than lacquer.
"Who are you?" I asked.
He bowed stiffly, "I am Asura. I have lived in Shimabara for quite some time. Where are you from?"
"The Palace of Lord Tsunemoto, daimyo of this province," the burly man spoke out.
"Oh. . .you. . ." Asura sighed, with a hint of bitterness, "The Reds, as you proudly call yourselves."
"That is right," another warrior spoke out.
"Then I suppose you will have to swim across. . ." the man sighed and began to turn his back to us. He turned his head around once more to say, "And do beware of the fissures. . ."
"Wait!" I ran to him, trying to stop him before he vanished.
Asura slowly turned around and looked at me, his mouth, partially covered by his cloak. "Yes?" He asked.
"Listen. . ." I tried to tell him, "I am the leader of this troop and we are not going to destroy Shimabara, as much as they believe we will."
"Shimabara is the only place left in this country that accepts me. I cannot have your armies keep destroying it before there is nothing left."
"The only place that accepts you?" I asked.
He bowed quickly. "It is a long story. Please. . ." he motioned me over to a small, thin, wooden boat, "ride with me to the town and I will show you."
"You must let my colleagues come," I told him. "They have journeyed with me all the way down from Northern country. I am not even from this region. I was appointed to lead these troops into battle because the daimyo knew my father was a great Samurai."
"Of course, but only your colleagues. How many. I can only fit ten people in this boat."
"There will be less than ten, but not much less."
I motioned them over to me, and they slowly dismounted their horses and walked towards the small boat. It was much like the one Galford had loaned us before it had become destroyed in the fire.
"Keep this area guarded!" I called to the rest of the troops. "If there is any threat, fight. But remember! Don't attack unless they attack first! Hidoshi," I told the burly man, "take control of them. Do not cross the sea unless I order you to!"
"Hai," he bowed.
I noticed that the soldier who had arrived late quickly dismounted his horse and ran over to me as fast as the heavy armor would permit.
"Why aren't you with the rest of them?" I asked
He stood in front of me, panting. I couldn't see his eyes or nose, but his skin was whiter and his lips were soft and very pink. It was not a soldier. I knew who it was.
"Charlotte!" I gasped, but tried to keep my voice down. "How did you. . ."
I couldn't believe that she had outsmarted them again. It simply amazed me.
She removed the helmet and her golden hair spilled out.
"It is me, Haohmaru. I was not going to let you fight alone."
She grasped my hand tightly in hers and quickly kissed my lips. For a moment my fingers tingled and my knees felt as if they were liquifying. I stumbled a bit, but then I regained my posture.
"Get in," I commanded.
Masashige, Sieger, Sogetsu, Kazuki, Galford, Nakoruru, Shizumaru, and Charlotte and I climbed into the boat. The water sloshed and swelled beneath us. After the storm that we encountered on our way over to Shikoku gave me qualms about stepping into this boat.
"Hey, the water is hot," Galford remarked, slowly dipping his fingers into the black ocean.
"It sure is," Asura replied, busy untying the ropes. "It's the molten rock from under the earth. The land is very unstable here. It's as if at any moment Hell will submerge and smother the entire town. The supporters of the Shogun believe that Unzen-san is the God's anger at Christianity, but the mountain has been erupting years even before they got here-even before the first human walked on this earth."
We looked up in awe at the mountain. It even diminished the appearance of Amakusa's palace, standing on an island not far from it.
With a slight push, Asura set the boat out into the ocean. Through the murky water, I approached the destination to which it took me thirteen years. . .
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