It was a dry summer day when he met him, that mysterious swordsman with the wooden arms. There was something that gave Tahomaru pause as he rode his horse through the countryside, seeing an armed peasant strolling around with such impunity.
He’d intended to teach him a lesson, scare him off from wearing a sword that’d he’d obviously picked up from a battlefield. After all, how could a man with no real arms be much of a threat?
He hadn’t expected to lose so quickly. He did not expect to be knocked flat on his back. And he definitely did not expect the stranger to look so indifferent at the fact he’d defeated the son of a samurai lord.
For a moment all Tahomaru could see was red, followed by visions of this stranger’s head freshly rolling off the executioner’s block. This was an insult to the extreme!
He was about to signal his retainers to strike him down, but something in this stranger’s serene yet melancholy face gave him pause. There was something about his face, about his demeanor, that made Tahomaru hesitate. There was a voice in his head, the goddess of temperance that spoke in the same voice as his mother’s. Does a samurai lord let pride rule his actions?
He did not signal for the stranger’s death. Instead he dusted himself off and looked him square into those glassy eyes. He waved his hand down at his companions, so they would point their arrows down instead of the swordsman’s neck. Hyogo and Mutsu un-nocked their arrows, but they kept their bows.
“Hm, you gave me more trouble than I expected. Impressive, for a peasant. Who are you?”
The stranger did not answer, but instead touched his hand to his chest as if he was unsure if he was the one being addressed.
“ Yes, you . Who else!” Tahomaru’s temper was rising again. He would not be mocked!
“That there is Hyakkimaru, the greatest demon hunter in all of Japan!”
His attention turned to the child standing on a grassy ridge, a boy a tattered kimono crossing his arms in a defiant way. Tahomaru had the distinct impression that the boy had climbed on that ridge specifically so he could look down on them. He considered replying to the child but then decided he was beneath his notice. A peasant who was capable dueler was unusual, a loud mouthed brat was not.
“Hyakkimaru, is that your name?” The swordsman nodded.
“Very well. I am Tahomaru of the Daigo clan, you better remember that! My father rules this land. I’m letting you walk away today because you intrigue me. We will fight again!”
Hyakkimaru still did not answer, but there was the softest hint of an acknowledgement in his throat. Tahomaru did not take his eyes off his new nemesis the entire time he was mounting his horse and taking off and neither did Hyakkimaru. Later that evening, Hyogo asked him why he had spared the peasant’s life instead of killing him on the spot.
“I didn’t feel like it.” Was the best answer he could give.
The second time they met was one Tahomaru would rather forget. He was riding again, but this time he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings. His mind was preoccupied in the war and with the new responsibilities he would be having when he was allowed to join. He wanted to impress his father, so he wanted to have ideas and plans at the ready to show his worth. Assuming all the peasants from the land of Sakai were spies and interrogating them is a huge waste of time and resources. But stringing them up against the border wall and executing them would send a message….
This was how Tahomaru was not prepared to hang on at all when his horse got spooked by a snake and reared up without warning. He immediately lost his balance and toppled backwards. He did not have time to be surprised that he fell into water instead of hitting the ground because he immediately started panicking. He did not know how to swim! He trashed his arms and legs wildly, noticing with extreme alarm that his feet did not touch the bottom of the river. Had the recent rain swollen the river so much so quickly? That’s why the river is so much closer to the road than usual. He coughed water out of his mouth and nose and wondered why his brain was focusing on that instead of not dying.
He was trying to orient himself to the shore when some force grabbed him by the back of his collar and dragged him to bank. He stopped struggling and allowed himself to be pulled backwards until the felt the comforting texture of the hard dirt on his back. He breathed deeply, glad to be alive and turned to look at his saviour. He jumped into a sitting position when he realized it was Hyakkimaru.
“...meet again.” His voice was raspy, almost as if he was unused to talking. Tahomaru had expected his voice to be quiet and direct.
“What, is that all you have to say? I suppose you’re after some sort of reward for helping me, well you’re not going to get any! And where the devil were you two!” Now that he was safe, Tahomaru felt the embarrassment of what just happened catching up to him. Slightly red-faced, he scolded his retainers for not helping him, threatening them with dismissing them or telling his father of their careless breach on his safety.
“Are you serious about the no reward thing? Boy, you are stingy!”
Tahomaru was interrupted mid-rant by that same urchin from before. He looked at the boy, incredulous that a commoner would have the gall to speak to him like that. That he had the arrogance to speak to him at all. And yet here he was, standing before him, with an insolent smile on his face. Did this young boy not fear death?
“Shut your mouth, churl!” It was Hyogo that reacted first, getting off his horse and grabbing Dororo by the collar. Tahomaru guessed he was trying to make up for nearly letting him drown.
“Aniki just saved your master! I think we deserve a reward!” Dororo aimed some ineffective kicks to Hyogo’s shin, mostly to show his defiance.
“I said be quiet!” Hyogo roughly threw Dororo on the ground, intending to strike him. But before either of them could move, a wooden hand closed on Hyogo’s wrist. In the blink of an eye, Hyakkimaru had put himself between Dororo and Hyogo.
“ Don’t .”
It was just a word, and yet it carried a distinct threat in it. Hyogo looked unnerved, but he did not retreat. His free hand launched to grab the hilt of his sword.
Frowning, Tahomaru closed his eyes and waved at Hyogo. “Leave him, there’s no sport in beating a child.” Hyogo let go of his sword at the same time Hyakkimaru let go of his wrist. The tension in the air was eased and Tahomaru saw Mutsu lowering her bow.
Hyakkimaru looked at Tahomaru, though it was hard to read on his face if he was expectant or wary; but he clearly knew that Tahomaru called the shots. It was kind of impressive how he managed to look so brazen and aloof despite being soaked like a wet cat.
“...I suppose I could give you some compensation, despite you only helping me for personal gain.” He put his fingers on his chin. “There’s a regiment of my clan’s army stationed not too far from here, they can give you dry clothes and some food.”
“You’re giving us a ride, right?” The impertinent child was up, still smirking arrogantly but now staying behind Hyakkimaru.
“I am most certainly not .”
“Why not? You’re soaked too! You’re heading the same way and you owe Aniki for saving your life. Let’s ride together!”
Tahomaru gaped again at the cheekiness of this peasant, it was simply unbelievable. How was he still alive? He brushed his wet hair out of his face and despite himself, considered what the brat said. He did not want to live with the knowledge that he was in the debt of a peasant and the soldiers at the garrison might not believe their story.
“...Mutsu, let the pint-size fleabag ride with you.”
“But young master-!”
“That’s an order!”
He mounted his own horse, ignoring the beast’s snorts in protest of his soggy clothes. He was about to snap the reins to go to a trot when the horse snorted again and shifted to accommodate the weight of a second rider. Tahomaru nearly fell off his horse again when he saw Hyakkimaru had mounted behind him.
“ What do you think you’re doing! ”
“Yes, with Hyogo ! Get off my horse this instant!”
Hyakkimaru shrugged casually. “Already here.”
For the second time Tahomaru saw red in his vision and he nearly let go of the reins to grab his sword. But he was cold, soaked to the bone and extremely uncomfortable. His whole body screamed that getting into dry clothes was more important that cutting down a rude peasant. Glaring at Hyakkimaru, he snapped the reins for the horse go forward.
“Once we have dry clothes, we’re dueling again!” He snarled, turning to the road and urging his horse into a gallop.
“Alright.” Did he imagine it or was Hyakkimaru’s response rather merry?
Chapter 2: Kyōdai tatakai
The two Daigo brothers get much better acquainted. It does not turn out well.
Thank you Verse and eternal_song for helping me edit this chapter!
The first time Tahomaru managed to force Hyakkimaru to step back, it was hard to tell which boy was more surprised. Tahomaru’s face lit up in a proud grin and Hyakkimaru perked up with determination, and the two of them clashed their wooden swords again.
Off to the side, Dororo sat up worriedly, thinking that Hyakkimaru might lose for the first time. Fortunately, the fight continued with neither gaining advantage, so he lazily sat back under the shade of a Japanese maple again to watch them, next Tahomaru’s attendant Mutsu. Despite how they had met, Dororo preferred it when Hyogo accompanied the young lord. Dororo could sweet-talk him into giving horse riding lessons instead of having to watch the two young men practice.
He yawned, eyes following the two wooden swords, and he tried to remember when they had switched from real swords to practice ones. When was it that Lord Tahomaru dropped the pretense of really dueling Hyakkimaru? When had they started meeting here more regularly, even though the Daigo army regiment had moved on and this place was now just an empty camp?
When had Hyakkimaru started circling back to this area every opportunity he got, no matter where the demon hunts took them?
Hyakkimaru was hard to read most of the time, but the liveliness and his step when he approached this place gave him away. If Dororo didn’t know any better, he’d even say Hyakkimaru’s face even brightened when he saw Tahomaru. Dororo smiled to himself. Ah yes, Hyakkimaru could see now, since he had recently gained his left eye. It had only been a couple of days since then, and he was still getting used to being able to see things instead of just sensing their spirit energy. Perhaps that’s why he is off his game with sword fighting today . Dororo didn’t entertain the idea that Tahomaru was getting better.
It really befuddled Dororo that Hyakkimaru would be interested in spending time with some snob from nobility. He was pampered, obnoxious and full of those haughty airs that only aristocrats put on. Dororo was sure the young samurai refused to learn his name on purpose. He got back by calling him “his excellency Ahomaru” whenever he could, though he’d learned to be out of reach from that wooden sword when he did.
What did Hyakkimaru see in the samurai lordie anyway? Dororo could not figure it out and trying to tease or cajole and answer out of the teen was met with sympathetic shrugs, as if he didn’t know himself.
Dororo had given up and resigned himself to sharing his Aniki. He needs to play with boys his age anyway.
Tahomaru, for his part, would tell his retainers that the only reason he sought out Hyakkimaru was to practice and perfect his swordsmanship. He groused about the inconvenience of it so they wouldn’t think he’s gone soft. He’d say that he was only there for training, and at times he would believe it himself.
But when practice was over and they sat down to share some tea, Tahomaru had to admit he was starting to enjoy just spending time with Hyakkimaru. It was refreshing talking to someone who did know or care about the politics of being a samurai lord, someone who had no expectations of him except for a good sword fight.
As much as he cared for Mutsu and Hyogo, them being his vassals coloured every aspect of their relationship. Tahomaru knew their fierce loyalty came from their faith that he would turn out to be a capable and effective leader. They were counting on him, which he deeply appreciated, but it meant he couldn’t tell them about his doubts about the future or himself. It surprised him how easy it was to open up to Hyakkimaru, though the other boy hardly spoke.
The only thing Tahomaru did not talk about was his parents. He didn’t know if Hyakkimaru remembered that he had introduced himself as the son of the local lord, but he had the feeling the other boy didn’t know what that meant anyway. It was odd; whenever he had the urge to mention his parents to Hyakkimaru, a weird feeling rose in his chest, an indescribable dread. He always ended up dropping that thought and changing the subject.
The downside of being with Hyakkimaru was that he brought that punk kid with him, no matter what. Tahomaru refused to believe they were blood brothers, and the way the urchin talked about how they traveled together made him more suspicious. Still, Hyakkimaru refused to be parted from him, so Tahomaru often sent the brat off to practice horseback riding while they trained.
On the day that Tahomaru took the advantage of the fight, however briefly, he was feeling quite happy with his progress. He knew Hyakkimaru would not let him win out of pity or because he was a noble, so his improvement was real. He was happy enough that he prepared Hyakkimaru’s tea for him, despite knowing that being a commoner he wouldn’t know the significance of the tea ceremony. Hyakkimaru did show appreciation by giving him one of those soft smiles of his. Tahomaru grinned as well, though he tried to not make it obvious. He even poured a cup for the small fry, though he didn’t hand it to him until he’d properly said “Otemae wo choudai itashimasu”.
He drank his tea and watched the maple leaves rustling in the wind, hundreds or thousands of them filtering out the sunlight from falling directly on his face. He closed his eyes to enjoy the peaceful moment. He didn’t know this was the last time he’d ever be able to meet Hyakkimaru like this.
The footsteps of hundreds of soldiers and horses kicked up so much dust in the terrain it was hard to see what was happening and the din of battle made it all the more confusing. Tahomaru was not worried, he had been training his whole life for this. He rallied the Daigo foot soldiers around him and led them forward on his horse towards the edge of town. His army had the advantage over the Asakura army because they were on familiar territory. He planned to use the houses and the wall at the town border both as a cover and as high ground for his archers to act as snipers.
He’d been separated from Hyogo early in the battle, when they had to retreat from the first wave of enemy arrows. He wasn’t worried.
At the town wall he was separated from Mutsu when she led the archer brigade over the roofs. He wasn’t worried.
He led his mount away from the houses, knowing that being on horseback gave him a disadvantage within the town and the enemy could easily lay a trap to corral him. As he rode into the field and the trenches, he saw some of the townsfolk hiding in the ditches. Apparently they had not been given enough time to evacuate before the battle started. Tahomaru didn’t like this but he grit his teeth and kept riding along the town border; there was no time to help peasants in the heat of battle. He wasn’t worried.
He was about to call for the rest of the cavalry when he saw a small figure in a dirty green kimono dashing towards town. Suddenly he was worried. He whipped his horse into a full gallop and leaned over to grab the foolish individual who was running towards danger.
He grabbed a handful of that shabby kimono and in one motion pulled the small body fully onto his horse. He immediately felt sharp teeth sink into his hand so hard he almost had to let go of the reins.
“Ow! Stop it, Dororo! It’s me!”
Closing his one real eye, Hyakkimaru surveyed the hundreds of white spirits raging in battle, sharply aware of how vulnerable he was. His spirit vision would not warn him about arrows quickly enough to evade them, and the amount of noise in this assault made it extremely hard to concentrate on anything. Even back in the time where he didn’t have the sense of hearing or smell, he would have avoided this bewildering mass of bodies falling against one another. It was ten times worse with his regained senses, and he almost wished he hadn’t come.
There was only one reason he was here, putting himself in extreme danger. He finally located the figure he was looking for: a spirit that was shrouded in red, yellow, purple and whitish blue, the colours enveloping him like flames. Hyakkimaru opened his real eye and saw that only a few houses and a wall separated him from his target.
He leaped forward and dashed towards his mark, dodging arrows and blows aimed at him along the way.
He was going to kill the man, no— the monster — who had taken away his limbs so long ago.
Tahomaru dismounted his horse and walked into town, bow in hand, carefully hugging the walls of the houses to make himself less of a target. He had managed to convince Dororo to hide out until the end of battle. Well, what he really did was threaten to skewer the boy himself if he didn’t get his sorry behind out of this place. He had to admit, it was remarkable how quickly that boy disappeared into the scenery. He’d probably make a good thief. Tahomaru tentatively glanced around, wondering if he would see the blue kimono of his sparring partner. Where there was a Dororo, a Hyakkimaru would likely follow.
Tahomaru shook his head slightly, forcing himself to concentrate on the task at hand. He knew his father had ridden into the town square to flush out the enemy infantry into the trenches. He’d seen the foot soldiers flee, some of them even deserting, but he had not seen his father give chase. He needed to know if something had happened to him.
He was careful walking through the streets to avoid unnecessary fights. He could not have been this sneaky if he had his horse, but being this close to the ground with no immediate means of escape made him slightly nervous. Stop it, you are a trained warrior, you are worth at least forty-eight of each of these common rabble.
He strained his ears, trying to discern his father’s voice over the clamour of the skirmish, but was too loud.
He stepped around the corner to look at the town square and everything went quiet. His blood ran cold.
He’d found his father. He’d also found Hyakkimaru.
Tahomaru felt as if time had stopped, seeing Daigo Kagemitsu pinned to the ground, with a sword held alarmingly close to his throat— a sword held by Hyakkimaru.
Tahomaru did not know how long he stood frozen on the spot, whether his father and his friend— no, his enemy were also as stock still as he was. He snapped back to reality when he saw his father’s lips move, he was muttering something angrily without taking his eyes off Hyakkimaru’s face. Neither of them had noticed him.
Moving woodenly, as if he were not in charge of his own body, Tahomaru swiftly took an arrow from the quiver at his belt. He nocked it expertly, his body still moving automatically. He began to take aim.
His fingers, his hand, nearly whole his arm started trembling when he had a clear shot at Hyakkimaru’s neck. He would not miss, not from this distance, not when Hyakkimaru’s attention was fully engrossed on his father. Hyakkimaru would die instantly. It was a clean shot.
He would not miss. He would save his father. He would kill the traitor. He would--
He wasn’t aware that he’d released the arrow until he saw it embedding itself into Hyakkimaru’s shoulder, hearing his howl of pain.
The cacophony of battle returned and rang in his ears. He saw his father try to take advantage of Hyakkimaru’s distraction to get out from under him, but Hyakkimaru recovered and put his sword to Daigo’s neck again, but now he seemed off balance.
Tahomaru reached for another arrow in his quiver, but he spilled nearly all of them with his unsteady hand. He cursed as he struggled to calm himself, his mind blanking as he tried to get another arrow ready while he saw his father struggling out of the corner of his eye. Kagemitsu embedded his sword deep so deep into Hyakkimaru’s left arm that there was an audible crack, which finally forced him to step back.
Tahomaru finally had another arrow in hand when he heard hoofbeats approaching.
He barely managed to duck out of the way of a horse ridden by none other than Dororo. The world seemed to slow down again as Dororo steered the horse towards Hyakkimaru, who slashed viciously at Lord Daigo to make him retreat and jumped on the horse himself. The horse with the two riders did a hurried turnabout and galloped towards Tahomaru.
Tahomaru’s mind may have been blank, but his hands were still moving. Instinct and training had taken over his movements again. He ditched his bow and drew his sword.
As the horse approached him, Tahomaru took a fighting stance. He was on Hyakkimaru’s left side, where his wooden arm would be useless thanks to his father. He would bury his sword deep into Hyakkimaru’s ribs before he could get through. Hyakkimaru would not be leaving this battlefield in one piece!
He received an extremely nasty shock when, instead of a limp and broken wooden prosthetic, Tahomaru was met with a sharp sword where Hyakkimaru’s left arm should be.
He was not fast enough.
A sharp, blinding pain suddenly exploded on his face and the world went dark for his right eye. It it took all his strength to remain standing and gripping his sword. He could feel the warm blood gushing down his cheek, but he did not feel the pain anymore as adrenaline took over. He lifted his own sword defensively with all the strength he could muster as he saw that sword-arm get ready to strike again.
“Aniki, no! That’s Tahomaru!” Dororo’s scream cut through the ringing in Tahomaru’s ears, and seemingly Hyakkimaru’s as well, because he leaned forward to look at the person he was ready to kill.
The two locked eyes on each other: several emotions are exchanged between them even in the tumultuous roar of battle: betrayal, hurt, hatred, confusion. It felt like an eternity of chaos was trapped in that split second.
But the second ended and Dororo whipped the horse forward, getting himself and Hyakkimaru out of the range of the Daigo soldiers’ arrows that were now raining in their direction. Tahomaru stood where he was, still as a statue, looking at the quickly receding back of the swordsman who attacked his father and then himself. The swordsman who had taken his right eye. He did not move. He felt his insides twist and churn with sheer hatred. He barely registered Mutsu’s presence at his side, completely losing her composure over his injury. He scarcely noticed that his father was also there.
“Hyakkimaru, you will die by my sword. This I swear.” He didn’t know if he said that out loud or it was all in his head. The adrenaline was wearing off and he beginning to feel lightheaded. He finally noticed that he was surrounded by the Daigo footsoldiers and decided it was safe to faint. He fell into Mutsu’s arms.
Dororo urged the horse to gallop as hard as physically possible for this beast. They rode past the town, past the trenches and past rice fields at breakneck speed. It wasn’t until Dororo feared the poor animal might actually collapse that he let off and slowed into a more pragmatic trot. At least they could not hear the sounds of battle behind them anymore.
As the horse struggled to regain its breath, Dororo also wrestled with what he witnessed. For the first time in his life, words failed him. He’d seen Tahomaru shooting Hyakkimaru. He’d seen Hyakkimaru slashing Tahomaru. For all the animosity that he had for the young lord, he had not wished him dead . He had not wished that the two would end their friendship. Not like this. This whole thing was a nightmare.
They rode in stunned silence for a while until Dororo abruptly remembered Hyakkimaru still had an arrow deep in his shoulder. Anxious, he turned his whole body to face Hyakkimaru and was met with a face he’d never seen on him before. He’d never seen him look so crushed .
Dororo was surprised he hadn’t heard him bawling. But as soon as they made eye contact, Hyakkimaru covered his face with his hand and turned away, and Dororo realized that he had been trying hard to keep quiet. He didn’t want Dororo to see him cry.
Dororo was still apprehensive about that arrow, but he silently turned to face the road again and gave Hyakkimaru the space he clearly wanted right now. There were a few more moments of silence before he heard Hyakkimaru’s choked voice behind him.
“He chose the monster.”