Sengoku Tales, 3

The Scavengers
Darkness brought scavengers of all kinds to the field of battle. The casteless had already been paid to take away the bodies, but as usual after battles there was more bodies than pay allowed so many were left to rot. The buzzards were the first to approach. Slow and large, they feasted on the dead as though at a majestic banquet. More than once the casteless had to chase away the birds before they could foul a corpse. War caused many injuries, but most families took a special aversion to having their kin eaten and so would pay less for the bodies return if it seemed damaged in this way. More than one casteless had remedied a fouled body by hacking of the afflicted portion.
After the casteless had forfeited their competition to the birds, the birds lazily went about their gluttony. As it grew dark other animals crept onto the field. Rats, wild dogs, foxes were among those to join the feast. All were attracted by the smell of blood and meat. Other vermin were attracted by the smell arms an armor. Thieves also patrolled the grounds to loot the bodies of the swords, armor and any other knick-knacks that the dead might have brought with them for luck.
Despite the ease in which these thieves pilfered from their unresisting victims, it was indeed a dangerous job. Robbing the dead was seen as an offense against the great spirits themselves, easily punishable be death. Even those who would be lenient would still sentence the culprits to brutally hard labor. More than one of the thieves often joked they would prefer death if caught, seeing as how they were robbing as an ease ways to means after all. But worse than merely taking from the dead, was the idea of taking a sword from a fallen samurai. The custom of the warriors held that the sword was the samurai’s soul in physical form. No samurai should consider himself complete unless armed with his blade and this extended into death. The punishment for stealing a sword from a dead samurai would be very bitter in deed. However since the patrols of guards were infrequent, many of the bandits felt the benefits outweighed the risks. Two such bandits were underway in the hopes of gathering several loads of spoils. A father and son team, the elder teaching his boy the family trade.
“All right, make sure to keep quiet now and stay low to the ground. If’n you should see a guard just go limp. More than like they’ll just think your one of the dead.” The father had passed on his advice several times on the journey to the battleground. The son merely nodded even though he doubted his father was watching. Both wore ill-fitting armor, scavenged from the first set of bodies that looked close to their size. Added to the illusion that they were dead themselves father had said. “Them lily white whore-sons could ne’er imagine suiting up for a job like this. Offends their sensibilities.” Again the son had merely nodded, as he silently wished the sun hadn’t baked in the smell of his helmet’s previous owner.
The pair crawled their way through he field. At every body the father would stop root through whatever belongings might be found. Most of the men carried silken bags, smaller than the child’s hand. Inside these bags were either tokens of home, sometimes a letter or perhaps hair clippings, or other charms meant to afford the spirits protection. The father spare little thought towards the fickleness of the spirits. He barely trusted in the charm he wore around his neck, but he would be hard pressed to venture into the without first asking for the spirit of commerce to watch over him. He even muttered a word of thanks each time he managed to dig small bag of coins out of the depths of someone’s armor. Even though the currency was low, it was by far easier to claim than swords. Still there were blades that were far too tempting.
“Look at that one,” father mouthed to son. Even in the pale light of the mostly hidden moon one of the blades seemed to glow. Getting closer, both men could see that the sword belonged to one of the dishonored. The white robes were deeply stained a color that n day would be closer to brown, but in the darkness seemed black. Between the dirt and blood of battle the man’s skin seemed clean, and it seemed to the son that the samurai’s pate most have recently been shaved, perhaps in preparation of battle. “Musta been some samurai prat to carry a sticker like that,” the father observed needlessly, barely sparing a look at the fallen. The son couldn’t help but take in the details. The endlessly staring eyes held him. He shivered as he felt that someone the eyes held awareness of what was happening. It was as if the glassy eyes could see into his very soul.
“It is indeed a beaut,” the father continued as transfixed by the blade in much the same way his son was by the dead man’s eyes. The sword seemed a touch longer than it should but not long enough to be considered in the ‘horse killer’ class. The dead man wasn’t all that tall, but the sword seemed to be made for someone a hand or two taller. “Likely stole it himself,” the father explained to himself. The circle of theft pleased the man, as if he were only a link in a chain, one that started long before him and would continue long after. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, merely performing his role in society.
He continued examining the sword, noting that the steel was notch free. The circular hand guard, which kept hand from blade, seemed elaborate but it couldn’t quite be made out in the darkness. The wide cord wrapped around the hilt as an added grip seemed old and worn. “Bastard didn’t even keep it nice. Well, time to let go you dead bastard.” The dead man’s hand was tied fast to the hilt so that even if it grew slick with blood it wouldn’t fly free. No matter, for the father carried a small knife for just such occasions. A few cuts later and all that was left was to pry the locked grip off he weapon.
The son was having a hard time tearing his eyes from the dead man. Suddenly he jerked back, certain he had just seen the eyes flicker. “What boy?” the father asked finally yanking the sword free. As darkness grew around then the son almost laughed as he realized it was just clouds passing over the moon that had tricked him into thinking he saw movement. “Nothing,” he said and in response to his father’s stare quickly added. “Thought I saw something is all.”
The father snorted at this. “Thought you were too old for worriyn’ about goblins, kappas and the like.” “I ain’t worried ‘bout that kid stuff. I meant like a guard or something,” the son hoped his bluster covered up his true feelings. He decided he didn’t like being here. What had sounded like a night of adventure with his father had instead turned into a night of revulsion. He was sure that he would never get the stick out of his nose and wanted a few stiff rinks to burn the taste out of his mouth.
Father looked over son. He could see the disgust and for a brief moment felt ashamed. But what was he to do? He wasn’t a rich man and he needed to provide for his family. He worked in the fields as best he could but still only managed to bring home enough to keep the family feed, and often only with millet not even being able to afford rice. He looked at the sword in his hand and thought about what was n the bag tied to his hip. That would be enough for some comfort at least. “I think we have about enough. What say we celebrate with a little taste?” he offered and was relieved to see his son’s look of disgust quickly melt into a smile, but was quickly puzzled when the look changed again to horror.
Strong arms grabbed him from behind, pinning him in his crouch. The father tried pushing up with his legs but the weight seemed too much, the strength in the arms unbreakable.
“Give it back,” a ragged voice commanded. Whore son guards, the father thought. Sneaking up on a man. I guess that is what I get for being distracted. “I’ll give it back. I’ll give it all back. Just let go.” He felt the arms slacken and knew he had only one choice if he wanted to be free. Leaning forward and twisting he swung the dead man’s sword behind him. It was an awkward swing, but the father was rewarded by feeling the strike connect with whoever was behind him.
“Take that you damned—” the father began but his voice left him as he saw what was behind him. Rising from the ground was the dead man with the sword the father was still holding buried deeply into his left shoulder. The dead man winced as he brought up his left hand and took hold of the blade. As he pushed up the blade cut into his palm and blood flowed down his arm adding new stains to the where the kimono sleeve was bunched at the elbow. The father felt the sword being pulled free from his grip and no matter how much his mind screamed at his body his muscles refused to respond, so great was his terror. He could no more hold on to the sword than he could run away.
The dead man took hold of the sword that was rightfully his. His face wrinkled in emotion as he looked at the blade that still seemed to gleam in the darkness. “Damned? Perhaps I am,” he said in a voice that had lost some of its ragged quality but was now touched with sadness. He looked down at the dirty peasant that was at his feet. He knew what must be done as he gripped the sword in both hands and raised it high above his head.
“Forgive me,” the father stammered out, his eyes fixed to the line of steel above him.
“I do,” the samurai answered. He then let his sword fall in a clean arc. Afterwards flicked the blood of his sword. Realizing that he no longer had his scabbard he frowned as he turned and walked away.
The son couldn’t say how long he sat there in silence. His father was dead. Why was he alive, he asked himself as he sat there, clothed in bloody armor, latching those who lay lifeless beside him. His father was dead. He went to his father’s body, feeling the tears that were sliding down his face. It made the night air feel cool despite the heat. His father was dead. A few steps from the body was the head. The face looked scared. Had he ever seen his father look scared before? He didn’t think so. But he had also ever seen a dead man come to life. Was he dead? Could the dead come back to life? Of course there were stories, but those stories were for kids and he was a man now. A man who had just watched his father be beheaded by a dead samurai. He sat there staring at what was left of his father until the sky wore its first few streaks of day. The light was like a signal to him. He gathered the head and started to leave. He took a few steps and paused. He thought of his mother and his brother and sisters. He was the oldest and had to do what was right for the family and his family still needed to eat. He returned to take the bag of spoils that was tied to his father’s waist.

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