By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.
I felt it as soon as I awoke. The subtle shift in the air, the sudden surge of life’s busy bustling, the quickening of the sun rising in the east, as night-time tried to steal the day from the sun’s golden fingertips.
Autumn was here.
I breathed deeply, feeling the faint chill that touched the air and the smell of sickly-sweet, damp earth and everything being overripe.
I had chosen this spot specifically for the great trees that towered above my small little cabin. In the autumn, their leaves changed colour so that it looked like a halo of fire both above and below me when the wind blew strongly, the leaves on the ground rising up in a swirl and dancing in the air, the reds, golds and oranges dancing like the flames. I loved watching them dance, thinking of a time soon when I too would be brothers with the wind and my spirit would dance with the fiery leaves.
I walked a little way away from my cabin to check the snares I had set. Game was getting scarce now that the bite of winter was threatening. I would need to stockpile or risk starving this winter. However, I couldn’t quite be bothered doing so.
The ache in my bones, not quite petrified with age but still not so young and lithe anymore, sensed, perhaps, that I would not live to see the winter snows come.
I found a fat rabbit struggling in one of my snares and I swiftly ended its struggle with a knife, my hand as practiced with a blade as a farmer with his plough. I slung the rabbit over my shoulder and, as it was close, I detoured to my favourite spot in the forest.
A small valley was nestled in between two outcroppings of rock. This small depression harboured only a single tree around which a tiny brook snaked. The tree was tall and branching, broad branches adorned with leaves that were normally a deep green but now instead were a deep, rich gold. A blanket of gold carpeted the ground around it, some leaves floating into the cheerful brook, gold against the sparkling silver of the moving water.
I laid the dead rabbit beside the tree and sat, cross-legged, under the branching limbs, facing the tree. I took my knife and placed it in front of me, almost as an offering, a shedding of my violence to the peaceful majesty of the tree.
I took long, deep breaths, listening, feeling, existing as part of the greater whole. I was no longer a man with a violent past, no longer a warrior, a betrayer, a brother or the subject of a Lord.
I was just one heartbeat amongst millions, one leaf floating upon the boundless winds of life.
I do not know exactly how long I sat there, lost in the flow, but when I came back to my senses, the sun had passed its zenith and was beginning its descent.
The time had come.
I collected my knife and my prize and walked back to my humble abode.
When I arrived, there he was.
My doom. My deliverance.
“Nobu,” I said calmly as he stood there, the leaves falling around him like a fiery halo, as though he had been sent from Hell itself to claim me.
Perhaps he had.
“Akione,” the figure replied just as calmly.
“I sensed you would come,” I said, dropping the rabbit on the small porch.
“The leaves are falling and the days are shortening,” he said, his fingers resting lightly on the black-red hilt of his katana.
“Autumn is a fitting ending to all things,” I agreed.
Silence lengthened between us, a silence I did not know how to breach, a silence I was not sure could be fully shattered.
“It is good to see you,” I said, then winced at my words.
“I cannot say the same for you,” Nobu replied, his face hardening even more.
“Shall I get my katana?” I asked, resigned to my fate.
Nobu gave a slight nod, his lithe, strong frame as tense as a bowstring, ready to unleash its violence on the one who had wronged him most in this lifetime.
I walked into my house, quite bare and simple. There wasn’t much in my life I had kept, not much I wanted to remember. All the good parts of my life were gone, blown away and lost like the leaves that spiralled around me under the trees.
I reached up to a high shelf upon which rested a box. The box was long and made of lacquered wood in a deep, chestnut brown, cherry blossoms gracing the bottoms of it.
I took it down reverently as I did every day, laid it on my bed and opened it.
A gleaming katana nestled in its red velvet bed. The hilt was a simple black and white pattern, symbolic in whichever way you chose it to be: light and dark, day and night, good and evil, male and female, yin and yang.
The blade still shone a sharp silver, no trace of the blemishes or the blood it had once wept with, had been tarnished by. The blade was just cold steel and I the memories wrapped in warm flesh.
I took the blade out and slid it into the gleaming black scabbard that hung on the door handle. I strapped it to my waist, took one last look at the smalless of my room, then strode out of the house and back into the swirling fire of the trees.
“Only one of us will walk away from this,” Nobu spoke.
“I know,” I said, my voice sounding twice my age of thirty-five winters.
The dance began.
We circled each other slowly, testing each other’s defence, searching for the weaknesses, both our hands mere inches from our katanas. We had always been evenly matched, except now one of us fought with a heavy weight astride his shoulders.
In a duel, the first to strike unleashed a lightning fast slash, perfectly timed, perfectly balanced in its raw power. Often that first strike would determine the duel and set the stage. Oftentimes it would strike the opponent and end the duel then and there.
For this duel, I would not be the first to strike.
When it came though, I was ready.
He slashed at me and I sidestepped it with ease, although I was not as fast as I had once been. Or perhaps he was faster than before.
Now the first strike had been made, I was free to fight back.
I remembered, many years ago, when drawing my blade had made me feel alive, made me feel powerful.
Now, it was just a reminder of things I wanted to forget.
I feinted to the left then swung back to hit his right flank. He easily parried it and returned the favour. Once again, his blade slipped past closer than I would’ve liked.
“Don’t hold back now, old man,” he mocked.
“Do not mock, Nobu. It ill becomes you,” I instructed.
“And it ill becomes you to kill like a thief, like a coward,” he replied, a sneer in his voice.
We exchanged another flurry of blows then both stepped back and began circling each other again. Our chests rose and fell more deeply now as our breathing increased.
“That is not what happened,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to put those images out of my head. It was the clear pool in which you could see the most.
Still, the images came.
I remembered it, the smear of red on the horizon even though it was the blackest part of night.
I remembered the screaming of the battle, the screaming of the women and the children trying to flee and of the men dying in the dirt.
I remembered my Lord commanding us to drive out the enemy, to defend those trying to flee. I remember charging up with Nobu, fury at our enemy making our blades strike true.
I remembered Kiyun, our Brother of the Sword, slipping away from the battle like a shadow, unscathed with not a drop of blood on him.
I remembered following him, slipping away as well, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, desperately wishing that what I thought was not true, desperately wishing that I could forget the sight of Kiyun slipping out of our camp three nights before, heading towards the direction the enemy had come from.
I remembered the message I had seen exchanged and the look upon Kiyun’s face when he saw me. It was a stranger’s face to me now.
I remembered finally how he had laughed at me when I confronted him, had refused to draw his sword to duel me and had turned to leave my presence.
I remembered the anger I had felt, the betrayal, and the flash of movement that had Kiyun gurgling and staggering forwards, my wakizashi buried in his back.
Lastly, I remembered the horror on Nobu’s face as he bore witness to it.
“That is not what happened,” I repeated.
“It does not matter. You broke the code,” Nobu said.
“I broke no code,” I said, although even I could sense the lie in my voice, the heaviness of my heart from over the years.
Nobu’s face instantly darkened.
“You know you did. I was there. I saw it,” he spat.
“You don’t know what you saw,” I replied calmly.
“I saw you killing him, killing him like a thief in the night! You killed him instead of fighting with me. If you had fought with me, we would have made it there sooner, broken the line sooner. Many would still be alive today,” Nobu said, and this time a poisonous bitterness flowed into his last words.
“I am sorry for your family, Nobu. I truly regret that I was any cause for their deaths. But it was war, Nobu. War is unpredictable. Not everyone escapes its long, dark shadow,” I said, starting the circling once again.
Nobu was having a difficult time controlling his anger, while my face was as still as glass.
“They would have if you had of been there! The two greatest samurai Japan has ever known would have saved them. Why did you do what you did, Akione?” he asked.
I lowered my guard for a moment and I saw his fingers twitch, aching to deliver the final blow. But I could see in his eyes that he wanted an explanation, that he wanted an excuse, perhaps, to not deliver the killing blow.
But I was a samurai who had broken Bushido. Only death could atone for it.
“Did you know of the papers Kiyun carried?” I asked. “Of what he was doing three nights before the night of the battle?”
Nobu hesitated and then nodded.
“Then you would know that in those papers was the agreement between Kiyun and the Warlord who burned down the town and all around it?”
Another tight nod.
“Then you understand why I did what I did. Justice had to be served, and an end put to one who could betray everything we stand for, betray the entire country,” I said.
“You stabbed him in the back, Akione. You stabbed our fellow samurai, our fellow warrior, our Brother of the Sword, in the back. That is not the samurai way. Justice is not served in the shadows,” Nobu replied.
“He betrayed us all, Nobu. He was a samurai, yes, like you and like me, and he sold us out to the enemy!” I hissed.
It seemed that as my anger grew, his calmed.
“And you betrayed us by slaying him in cold blood, by refusing to defend your other Brothers of the Sword and by disobeying your Lord’s orders to defend and protect,” he said.
“You do not understand,” I said, shaking my head.
“I would not stab a man, a Brother of the Sword, in the back in the darkness, no matter what his crime,” Nobu said, a calm finally settling over his features.
“If I had faced him in a duel, if I had killed him while his sword was in his hand, would you have accepted it then? Would you and our Lord have forgiven me?” I asked.
“You acted out of anger and darkness, Akione. You let your emotions control you. It was not your place to serve justice. Our Lord should have done so and punished him as he saw fit to punish his subject,” Nobu said.
“He betrayed us,” I said, the anger still burning. “He was one of us, our closest friend, Nobu, and he betrayed us.”
“And you betrayed him,” Nobu said.
The wind blew stronger then, stirring the leaves and swirling them around us.
The ends of Nobu’s headband waved in the wind and his armour clinked with its breath and with his movements, while his scabbard banged gently against the metal and the smell of wood smoke and horse drifted around me. They were small things, small sounds, but they suddenly conjured up more memories.
Long, cold nights spent by open fires, the quiet sounds of voice and laughter floating in the air as Nobu, Kiyun and I exchanged stories and told tales. The thrill of sparring with each other, and later challenging each other to duels, to decide who was the best of the three of them. The smell of horse and sweat as we travelled on missions for our Lord and the pride and happiness we had felt in each other’s successes, in each other’s happinesses. But most of all I remembered the feeling of having someone always by your side, a solid presence, a pillar upon which you entrusted your life, someone who you would gladly die for so that they could live another day.
The weight of it all suddenly came crashing down upon me, of the loss, of the blood on my hands that could never be erased. The hand that held my sword trembled while tears threatened to spill down my cheeks.
Nobu’s face softened for a moment.
“Raise your sword,” he said softly.
I did as he asked and we began circling again.
Time seemed to slow, everything taking on a heightened sense of clarity, every sense on high alert as we circled. Even the wind, for a moment, seemed to stop, as though holding its breath, waiting, waiting.
I saw Nobu dart out to strike at my right side and I instinctively reacted. Just a moment too late I remembered that this was his trick move, the move I had helped him hone to perfection. And now, with a sudden flick of his sword, the blade appeared on the opposite side and I felt a searing hot pain drive across my chest.
The world suddenly lost its clarity and time resumed its onwards march. I fell heavily onto the ground, my blood now beginning to mingle with the red-orange-gold carpet of leaves around me.
Nobu stood perfectly poised, his katana now dripping red with blood, with my blood. I lost my grip on my own katana and felt a coldness begin to rush over me.
I felt afraid. I had not felt so afraid in a very long time. The tears now rolled freely down my face.
With a faint rustling of leaves, Nobu appeared beside me and leaned down.
“I am sorry, Akione,” he said, his brown eyes staring at me now with only shared pain.
I wanted very badly to say to him that it was okay, that I forgave him, that what he had done was not in malice, but in justice, in mercy. Death was the only atonement for me. I had been too cowardly to do it myself, to make the cut, to end my life. He had released me from that shame and now I was free, and so was he.
I, however, couldn’t make my voice work. All I could do was grab him by the arm and squeeze it in a wordless goodbye.
I hoped he understood what I meant.
The last thing I remembered seeing were the fiery colours of the leaves that spiralled and danced down, the wind whispering its welcome to me upon them.