Excerpt from a story in progress: "Shadow Warrior"
| Chapter III
It was cold! The river ran sluggishly between the forested, overhanging banks. Skim ice flashed as it swirled in the stream.
The boy lay submerged under a twisted clump of willow withes caught against the sandbar in midstream. Only his nostrils above the surface of the water. The slight calm in the eddy caused by the sandbar and the clump of willow, was just enough to let him breathe carefully without inhaling water.
He had been lying there for hours it seemed, yet it was not time. He knew that to move now was Death!. He waited. His breathing slowed to almost nothing, the rhythm of his heart beat reduced to fifteen or twenty beats a minute. He felt no discomfort from the cold, or his immersion.
The hunters coursed the banks of the river. One paused opposite the sandbar and looked across the icy stream. Motionless, the Ninja stood looking for any sign not belonging to the woods and the river in winter. The tell-tale steam of a careless breath, a mark in the snow; a swirl in the currents of the river. He saw nothing. He jumped down to the rocks below the bank and looked up and down the river, carefully searching the undercut banks for a cave, or a crevice, or the marks made by the passage of an animal, or a man, in the drifted snows along the shore. Nothing.
He looked again at the sandbar. The river ran slowly here. He stepped into the water, picking his way to the sandbar. Skirting the clump of willows the Ninja walked onto the sandy hump and dropped to his knees to examine its surface more closely. Satisfied, he reentered the water near the willows. As he did so, he stepped on the boy's ankle. It rolled under his foot. The water erupted in blinding spray. He never saw the dagger that caught him under the chin and drove into his brain.
The boy caught him as he fell, lowering the body silently into the water, to send it into the current with a push of his foot. The boy stood for a moment listening. Then slid soundlessly back into the clump of willows. The river chuckled gently as it took the Ninja into its embrace. All was as it was. Silent... Cold... Waiting...
When the light filtering through the willows had faded to black, the boy sat up under the overhanging branches, listening to the night. While he listened he started the mental and physical exercises that would bring his body back from the deathlike state he had imposed upon it.
Wryly he remembered the endless hours spent trying to learn to control his individual muscles. “Move only the little toe on your left foot”, his father had demanded. With failure came punishment.
“The mind is the key!” his father had said, “The mind is the key! Your mind controls your body. You must control your mind!” He would hold his arm out in front of the boy. “See!”, He would say, as the hairs on his forearm rippled in waves from elbow to wrist and back to elbow. “Move only the little toe on your left foot!”
By the time the boy was five, any muscle he chose would twitch, swell, or ripple. He learned to slow his breathing and heartbeat to appear dead to casual examination. At the age of eight, a doctor would have found it difficult to decide that he lived. He learned to lie for hours naked in a snowbank without discomfort. He learned how to live in his mind, aware of his surroundings, but unaffected by them.
He had learned well these and other lessons his father had taught – how to move invisibly and soundlessly through an empty forest, or a crowded street. How to kill with hands and feet, or any of a thousand innocuous things found in every house, field, or even with the coins from a man's purse.
As he grew older, he learned to use the weapons of the Samurai and how deadly a homely sickle, or even the stone used to whet it could be. He learned the weapons of the Ninja; Tiger Claws, Shuriken, the small needles blown from the mouth into the eyes and face of a foe, the poisons and potions, and the many other tools of stealth and death. He learned well. His father taught him well. At fourteen, his father found it difficult to defeat him. Their mock combats frequently ending undecided.
His father had warned him, “One day they will come. If you do not learn, you will die! Move only the little toe on your left foot!”
He had learned. They had come! His father was dead, the hut they had built on the grounds of the ruined temple lay in glowing embers, and the hunters, -less one- sought him now.
But, sometimes the hunted becomes the hunter. In the breast of every mouse, lives a piece of the Tiger!
Satisfied that the hunters were searching elsewhere, the Tiger slid into the water and swam silently toward the bank where the dead Ninja had appeared. He reached the rocks of the river's edge and slithered into a crevice among the boulders. He paused, listening. The night was silent except for the occasional murmur of the stream and the brash tinkle of ice against the rocks.
His were ears that had learned to hear the heartbeat of a man across the width of a room, or to follow the path of an arm, or a weapon, by the whisper of its passage through the air. He had been trained to catch the sound of a grain of rice falling on bare earth; to know to the inch exactly where it had fallen. He heard nothing save the sounds of the forest, the river, and the fading storm.
Without a sound, he seemed to flow up the bank and fade into the blacker night of the wood. He made no sound moving through the forest. The twigs and leaves did not snap, rattle or rustle beneath his feet as he passed. He left no track, stepping only where the snow did not lay on the ground. The huge pines and other trees in this virgin forest, grew thick and tall. Shielding the ground in many places from the snow.
The boles of some of these giants were over eight feet in diameter. He knew of some in the deeper part of the forest that exceeded twelve. In training with his father he had been taken, blindfolded, deep into the depths of the forest and abandoned without food or tools, to survive or die, and find his way back to the hut on the temple grounds.
Light the night itself, he flowed through the forest. Unseen. Unheard. Unnoticed. His passage was so silent he came upon a Lynx eating a fresh kill and passed without disturbing the animal.
The storm had been raging for days, now it paused, as if to gather its strength for a final desperate onslaught; the wind fading to fitful little gusts; the snow a soft downy mist. Here under the canopy of the ancient trees and the tickets of Bamboo, one was barely aware of the storm.
When he reached the hillside behind the temple, he climbed the rocky outcropping and lay at the edge looking out over the back of the walled enclosure below. In the dark of night he could see nothing. He knew, however, what he would see by day. From his vantage point the whole of the temple grounds could be seen. Fifty yards in front of him was the rear wall. The hut where he and his father had lived was to his right, about the same distance away and would just be visible behind the wall in the corner of the compound where the North and West walls joined.
The grounds had been sited to take advantage of the slopes and hollows of the terrain. The walls carefully followed the the contours of the hillsides. Outside the North wall, below him, a small stream had been diverted into the enclosure by a hidden culvert to emerge in the interior of the temple, and pass through to form a circular pond and then continue as a chuckling rill over little waterfalls to disappear under the South wall of the compound.
When the building had collapsed, the pond, the stream and the delightful garden around them had been buried in the debris. Over the years, the boy and his father had cleared the rubble and restored the garden. Had it been light, he would have seen it through the lattice of the remaining roof beams of the temple.
The main hall had faced the gates in the South. A small antechamber paved with rounded river stones, guarded the entrance to the inner courtyard, which was reached by passing between massive wood columns, once beautifully carved and gilded; now scarred and defaced by the fire and the depredations of the ravening Samurai who had destroyed the monastery.
From the antechamber a series of carved stone arches opened into the main courtyard and the garden it contained. In the West and East walls of the courtyard were galleries opening into the dormitory and living areas of the monks who once inhabited the monastery.
In the West, seven broad stone steps approached the huge bronze-covered doors of the temple itself. At the peak of its years, prior to its destruction, the temple population must have exceeded five-hundred monks. The temple and worship area would have been able to accommodate these and, during sacred holidays visitors, with ease.
Now the roofs were fallen, the arches collapsed and the only worshipers were the mice, insects and other creatures living in the rubble. The broken jagged contours were softened in summer by the encroaching weeds and wildflowers and in winter by the drifting snow.
The Tendai, and Sohei monks had been under attack since shortly after their inception in the early years of Japan. Whose monastery this was, or had been, or who destroyed it, the boy did not know, and his father did not care. It had happened a hundred or more years before he took refuge here with his son. It was deep in the woods and had been abandoned or unknown for years. When the boy and his father had first discovered the ruins, the father had queried the peasants in the neighbor hood. By subtle questioning and hints he had discovered that no one seemed to know of its existence. This included the oldest men and women in the area. No one, Charcoal burners, Woodsmen, nor hunters seemed to have come across it in their excursions into the forest, nor knew of it!
It had seemed an ideal place in which start a new life and remain hidden. Except for a rare visit to one of the villages to buy rice, the boy and his father lived on game they hunted in the forests, and a small vegetable garden that they had outside the enclosure, where they grew kale, radishes, and winter melons.
In the night, only the Northwest corner was discernible, dimly lighted by the glow from the burning hut. The boy saw no activity, nor did he expect to. The Ninja hunting him were not likely to expose themselves to the quarry they sought. That same quarry that now sought them!
The storm had torn savagely at the forest during the day driving the snow with raging fury. In the calm of the dying storm all was silent. The forest lay sleeping under a snowy blanket.
Retracing his path into the wood for some distance, the boy paused at the base of a gigantic Pine that had been uprooted by a storm in years past. The hollow formed in the earth, when the massive root system had ripped away and toppled the tree, was shaded from the snowfall by the overhanging root ball. A deep bed of fallen leaves and Pine needles cushioned the bottom of the hole. He sprang across the hollow to land in the tangled root mass of the tree. Groping for a moment deep in one of the pockets among the roots, he found what he sought. Twisting his hand to the right, he withdrew it to reach up and pull on a gnarled white root above his head. At his pull, a section of the tree base swung out to expose a tunnel leading deep into the trunk of the fallen tree.
He paused to listen and scan the surrounding forest for movement, then entered the tree, closing the trap door behind him. He crawled into the trunk on hands and knees until he felt the floor of the passage drop from beneath his hand. Feeling the wall to his left, his hand located a niche in the wall from which he took an oilskin wrapped package. In the dark, he took out flint and steel and a wad of tinder. Again he reached into the niche and removed a candle. A few quick moments sufficed to strike a flame and light the stub. The light bloomed to expose a chamber cut into the trunk of the tree and down into the earth below. The space so formed, as a little less than eight feet wide and ten long. The ceiling was slightly less than the height of a man from the packed earthen floor. In one corner lay a bedroll. Shelves and pegs on the walls held food, weapons and clothing.
He and his father had made this bolthole early in their coming to this forest. It had been visited, at infrequent intervals, to check the condition of the weapons and supplies. He would have come here at the first sign of trouble, but the Ninja had been between him and this haven.
His father had planned well. The chamber contained enough food and water to feed two men well for a week. With frugal use of the supplies, one man could stay hidden in the secret room for a month or more without need to venture out. Provisions were made even to care for the natural body functions. Fresh air was supplied by an ingenious ventilation system that drew air in from under the trunk through Bamboo tubes that ran through the fallen tree to exhaust in a thicket of saplings some distance away.
Safe in his refuge, the boy removed his icy clothing and unrolled the bedroll. Drawing the covers over his chilled body, he slept.