By Jaqueline Chilard

2009 Samurai Fiction Contest

Genre: Historical Fiction / What If?



Yoritomo shielded his eyes against the sleet to look across at his Tomonaga, riding beside him. His belly roiled as he saw how weak and frail his brother had become.
Tomonaga’s face gaunt was from pain and sickness; he was dying, the broken shaft of an arrow rotting in his flesh. Their horses walked behind those of their father and oldest brother, Akugenda. Their clansmen rode alongside and behind, sometimes ahead as they checked the safety of the terrain and for sightings of their enemy.
The day was vile with a bitter wind, sleet and snow. Could their enemy reach them in these conditions? Yoritomo thought not, and begged his father to let them rest.

“Father, please, let us stop here, and I will melt some snow so Tomonaga can drink.” His request was loud enough for his father to hear, and surely he could see that Tomonaga’s lips were dry and cracked, his skin sallow and covered in a sweat that should not have been possible in such bitter cold. His father merely spurred his horse on, grunting a curt “No.”

Akugenda barely glanced at them, but he mimicked Yoritomo’s recently broken voice when he called, “We’ll drink when we get there. Keep moving.”

The men, his father’s soldiers, ignored everything and simply obeyed. None stopped to help him, so Yoritomo could only ride on, biting his lips to stop his protests. Protests would do no good. He was only thirteen so nobody listened to him. He reached across and patted the neck of Tomonaga’s horse, the only comfort he could give.
Another few miles of riding, while snow drifted in the harsh wind, Tomonaga had lain across his horse’s neck, exhausted and weeping. “Help me, father, please. Help me to die. I am holding you back.” He looked as if he wanted to say more, but his eyes rolled and he fell from the horse onto the frozen ground below. Their father turned back, his face showing his impatience.

Yoritomo sat on his horse, watching and waiting for something to happen, without the energy to ask or protest or cry, and he watched his father and Akugenda dismount and pull Tomonaga into a sitting position. Barely conscious, the injured youth tried hard to cooperate as they untied the lacings of his armour and bared his chest to the freezing air. Their breath made small clouds as they struggled.

“Are you sure? Are you ready?” their father asked as he pulled his sword from its scabbard. Tomonaga raised his fevered eyes to meet their father’s implacable gaze.
“I am.”

There was no further conversation, no time to think or understand. Yoritomo sat dazed on his horse as his father’s sword pierced Tomonaga’s heart, and his brother went to the void, his face no longer gaunt, full of suffering, but returned to its fine-featured beauty. Only sixteen, surely too young to die, especially like this.
Yoritomo looked at his father and Akugenda. How could it be that their good looks were enhanced by this suffering and defeat? Tomonaga had the finest features; he had a noble look about him that had driven Akugenda to taunt him. Yoritomo knew he need never worry about his looks. He was plain featured and sturdy, but Akugenda called him a runt.

Anger at his brother kept the grief at bay. Concentrate on that, and then I will not cry.
He should not care about death, he was a soldier and soldiers cared nothing for mortality. They fought and died, and were content with that. Yoritomo was not.
Father and Akugenda, look at them, they bear no sign of grief or care. Bastards.

His older brother caught him staring and shouted, “Get down, runt, and help us bury him.” Startled, Yoritomo tried to dismount his horse, but his hands were frozen into claws around the reins and his legs were stiff. By the time he stood with them, Akugenda and the men had already dug a hole in the snow, using Tomonaga’s helmet.

For a few minutes the wind died down, and the silence filled his ears with mud. The men breathed heavily at their task, their breath puffing in clouds of vapour that hung silently in the still air. Then the wind started again and Yoritomo shook himself out of his stupor.
“Come on, lay him down and help us cover him over.” Akugenda spoke calmly, as if this were a normal sight to see, a typical way for a brother to die. Yoritomo, as the youngest, could only obey, and when his thoughts tried to get in the way of his actions, he stopped them, ruthlessly. He could not think, not now.

When they finished burying Tomonaga they climbed on their horses and set off once more, and Yoritomo let his horse lag behind. He gave his grief no sustenance; to grieve would be a weakness, it would slow them down, and look what happened when you inconvenienced their father. No, he would stay quiet and walk on, behind them where they could not see his face.

Stinging needles of windblown sleet forced him to shield his eyes, but even with only one hand on the rein, his horse was too weary to do anything other than trudge on. At least the terrain was reasonably flat, but the settling snow of this morning hid any dangers underfoot. It was just another thing to endure, like everything else that had happened these last few days. Running, escape, fear and panic, he knew that his father had not foreseen this, but it was here, now, their fate. He was too young to have to endure this, surely? His resentment festered as he dragged strands of hair from his eyes. A week ago he had been convinced of his maturity. Hadn’t he already had his manhood ceremony? Should he not, therefore, be allowed to fight? It did not seem so clear now, he no longer felt like an adult. Worse, he felt bitter that his own father was the cause of his misery.

The sleet hid the stains of his tears of rage. The tears dried on his face, or perhaps they froze; no matter, he was not crying now.

No longer able to gallop in these conditions, his horse walked on, stoic in the spiteful wind, her head down and giving an occasional snort to clear the sleet from her nostrils. Yoritomo lowered his head and tried to ignore the ache in his legs, the pain of his freezing ears. Nothing to be done but endure. Perhaps the wind would drop, perhaps the painful sleet would gentle itself into a soft snowfall, perhaps this was all just a dream.
The battle, his first, had started three days ago, and although it had started well, it was not long before it had gone badly. When they ran from Miyako they were ten men: the three brothers, their father, and a small group of retainers, one of whom ran off after only a few hours.

This battle had been brewing in his father’s heart for three years, ever since the Hogen Rebellion. Taira no Kiyomori had been on the same side as Father then, the victorious side. But not all Genji men had chosen to fight with Father, some had sided with Grandfather, Tameyoshi, instead. When that battle was won, Kiyomori ordered Father to execute Tameyoshi. Father refused, for how could he kill his own father? Another clansman had carried out the execution so that at least he would not die at the hand of the Heike. Grandfather Tameyoshi was on the wrong side, which was the losing side. Father was on the right side then, the wrong side now.

How foolish the Genji were three years ago; they could not even choose the same side to fight on. Bad enough to choose the wrong side instead of the right side, but it should at least be the same side. Now, they had chosen the same side, but it was the wrong side.
Yoritomo sighed his contempt. It really was ludicrous, all of it.

The sun began to set and Yoritomo’s heart was as frozen as his skin. One brother dead now, uncles and cousins dead, countless other Genji men dead, the rest of them hunted like stray dogs. He still wore the armour and carried the sword with which he had dreamed of killing the enemy. His hair was unbound for war, and would have fallen to his shoulders but for the harsh wind that blew into his face and tangled his hair. On his back was a quiver of arrows; his bow was slung across his shoulder. He had used none of his weapons, had not been allowed near the thick of the fighting. He still wore his archery gloves, and was glad for the slight protection they gave against the wind and sleet. All around him lay drifts of snow; the going was treacherous for the horses, yet they had no choice but to push on.

If they stopped, they would die in the snow, but if they turned back the Heike would capture them and slaughter them. What catastrophe had his father dragged them into? What calamitous errors of judgement was his father still capable of? This defeat brought Yoritomo to the only conclusion he could make: his father was a fool, and was responsible for all the troubles that would now befall the Genji.

They were running away instead of staying in Miyako and accepting their punishment like soldiers should. Running, in an effort to stay alive one more day. He did not want to die, and had run as hard and fast as his father, but then, it was not his fault that they had lost, not his fault that they were fugitives who would be put to death without hesitation by the Heike, should they be captured.
His horse stumbled briefly in the snow but steadied herself, and he could not prevent the small gasp that escaped him as his heart leapt at the thought of his horse going lame. Akugenda heard this brief loss of composure, and looked over his shoulder and laughed at him.
Shut up, Akugenda, you villain. I wish you were dead instead of Tomonaga.

He watched the rumps of the other horses as they led the way north. Dusk was fading into night, and there was little illumination from the occasional glimpses of the moon, as the bitter wind buffeted the rain-filled clouds, clouds that dropped their burden into the freezing air below. He did not know where they were going, could only hold the reins in his frozen hands, and endure. His dead mother would be prone with grief in the netherworld, knowing that her whole family was going to be decimated. Perhaps they would meet again, if the Buddha allowed it.

His father and brother sat on their horses ahead of him. Their backs slumped in fatigue; they barely spoke, and seemed to have forgotten about him following behind. He thought he heard his father say, not too far now, as the words blew past him on the bitter wind. But it was too far, it was cowardly and pointless and Yoritomo was weary of them, of his own vinegared thoughts, of the wind, of his father’s arrogance and incompetence. Despite everything, despite his father’s confidence, their superior numbers, even with the element of surprise, they had lost.

The words came unbidden to Yoritomo, and before he could stop himself, he spoke them aloud, his lips frozen into a sneer of contempt. “Stupid bastard, father. You stupid bastard. Look what you have done. Look what I have to endure because of your vanity and stupidity.” The howling winds blew his words away, and his father never heard them.

It was his father’s mistress who had flattered him into thinking he could win, and become the emperor’s chosen leader of the imperial army. That whore, Tokiwa, and her three bastard children, had kept his father away from home, turned his head, made him even more stupid than he was before. Those three bastard children, all tiny, all boys, were not his brothers, not in his heart. They could not run, and he could take comfort in the thought of their deaths, at least. The youngest was a baby their father had named Ushiwaka; perhaps they would be kind and not kill a baby, but Yoritomo did not care either way.

Up ahead he could see a hamlet, just a few houses hunkering down in the snow, huddled together against the wind. The chinks in the wooden walls showed a dim lamplight, and an assurance of a little draughty warmth and shelter, perhaps food and hot water to warm them up. Yoritomo watched as his father and older brother straightened their backs and spurred on their horses, reviving at the thought of shelter at last.
Stupid to be so relieved. Stupid to trust the people in those houses, to believe that they were loyal Genji men. The Genji have no idea what loyalty is, he thought, as he reined in his horse, watching his father and brother urge their horses into a trot.

He would not do the same.
No more of this, no more.
Yoritomo turned his horse away and rode back the way he had come. They would not miss him, and if they did, they would believe him lost in the storm. It would never occur to them that he found them unworthy.
He would not die for them.
He would not die with them.
He was on his own, precisely where he wanted to be.