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Musings of a Hermit


When you hit a man with a sword, it can go clean or ugly. A clean hit and you barely even feel the impact. Oh, your opponent feels it. Trust me. But for the swordsman, your blade travels through skin and muscle as if it is parting water. Arms can come right off. Legs are tougher, but a good strike will cut clear to the bone and leave them crippled. A katana will shear a rib like paper, and their guts will fall out like a butchered pig. Then with a snap of the wrist the blade has returned and the swordsman is prepared to strike again. Simple. Effective. Clean. I’ll spare you all the flowery talk the perfumed sensei spout about rhythm and footwork that inevitably make killing sound like a formal court dance, but when you do everything just right, I swear to you that I’ve killed men so smoothly that their heads have remained sitting upon their necks long enough to blink twice before falling off.

However, an ugly hit means you pulled it wrong, or he moved unexpectedly. The littlest things, a slight change in angle, a tiny bit of hesitation, upon impact you feel that pop in your wrists, and then your sword is stuck in their bone, they’re screaming in your face, flinging blood everywhere, and you have to practically wrestle your steel out of them. Whatever bone you struck is a splintered mess. Usually the meat is dangling off in ghastly strips. Some men will take that as a sign to lie down and die, but a dedicated samurai will take that ugly hit and still try to take you with him, just because in principle if a samurai is dying, then damn it, he shouldn’t have to do it alone. It can be a very nasty affair.

The tax collector died very ugly.

I only wanted to be left alone.

* * *

Kanemori was sitting by the stove, absorbing the warmth, debating over whether it was too early in the afternoon to get drunk, when there was a great commotion in his yard. Someone was calling his name. It wouldn’t be the first time in his long life that someone with a grudge had turned up looking for him, but this sounded like a girl. He rose and peeked out one of the gaps in the wall that he’d been meaning to repair, to see that it was the village headman’s daughter trudging through the snow with determination.

“Go away!” he shouted.

“Kanemori! The village needs your help.”

The headman always wanted his help with something, the lazy bastard. A tree fell on old lady Haru’s hut. Or Den’s ox is stuck in the river. Or please save us from these bandits, Kanemori-sama! And then he’d have to go saw wood, or pull on a stupid ox, or cut down some pathetic bandit rabble. He knew it was usually just the headman trying to be social, but it was a waste of his time. He didn’t belong to the village. He’d simply had the misfortune of building his shack near it.

“What now?” he bellowed through the wall.

“The new Kura-Bugyo is going to execute my father!”

“What did your imbecile father do to make the tax collector angry this time?”

“The last official was honest, but the officials this year are corrupt. They take more than they’re supposed to. They take the lord’s share, and then they take more to sell for themselves! Father refused to give up the last of our stores. If we do we’ll perish during the winter.”

Of course the officials were corrupt. That’s what officials were for.

The girl was about ten, but already bossy enough to be a magistrate. When she reached the shack she began pounding on his door. “Let me in, Kanemori!”

“Go away.”

“No! I will stay out here and cry until I freeze to death! Your lack of mercy will cause my angry ghost to haunt you forever. And then you will feel very sorry!”

Kanemori sighed. Peasants were stupid and stubborn. He opened the door. “What do you expect me to do about it?”

“You are samurai! Make them stop.”

“Oh?” He looked around his humble shack theatrically. “Do I look like Oda Nobunaga to you? I am without clan, status, or even basic dignity. Officials aren’t going to listen to me. Do you think I moved to the frozen north because I am so popular?”

“You are the worst samurai ever!”

* * *

In defense of the clumsy butchery that passed for a battle against the corrupt tax collector and his men, my soldiering days were over. It had been many seasons since I’d last hit a man with a sword, so I was rusty. When your joints ache every morning, the last thing you want to do is practice your forms, so my daily training consisted of the minimum a retired swordsman must do in order to avoid feeling guilty. Why do more? I had no lord to command me, no general to bark orders at me—The only person who’d done so recently was my second wife, and I’d buried her two winters ago—and if I spent all my energy swinging a sword who was going to feed all these damnable chickens?

It isn’t that peasants can’t fight. It is that they’re too tired from working all day to learn to fight. A long time ago some clever sort figured that out, traded his hoe for a sword, started bossing around the local farmers, said you give me food and in exchange I’ll protect you from assholes who will kill you, but if you don’t, I’ll kill you myself, and the samurai class was born. From then on, by accident of one’s birth it determined if you’d be well fed until you got stabbed to death, or hungry and laboring, until you starved…or got stabbed to death.

Spare me the history lectures. I actually do know where samurai come from. I was born buke. I slept through the finest history lessons in Kyoto. You would not know it to look at me now, but I was once a promising young warrior. It was said that handsome Hatsu Kanemori was a scholar, a poet, and the veritable pride of my clan, and high-ranking officials were lining up to offer me marriages to their daughters…until one day I finally told my lord I was sick of his shit. Then I promptly ran away before he could decorate his castle wall with my head.

Now, the life of a ronin is a different sort of thing entirely. Samurai live well, but they’re expected to die on behalf of their lord. Ronin live slightly better than dogs, and are expected to die on behalf of whichever lord scraped up enough coin to hire us. Being a wave man retains all of the joys of getting stabbed to death, but with the added enticement of being as miserable and hungry as a peasant, up until when you get stabbed to death.

But at least you are your own master.

* * *

After he closed his door in her face, the headman’s daughter had sat down in the snow, started wailing, and seemed petulantly prepared to freeze to death in his yard in protest. He’d known mighty warriors who had committed seppuku to protest a superior’s decision, but this was a new form of protest to Kanemori. He thought about throwing rocks at her until she left, but even a curmudgeon has his limits. So he put a blanket over his head to muffle the noise and took a long nap instead.

When he woke up, the girl was still there. Kanemori was surrounded by stubborn idiots.

“Does your family know you walked all the way here?” he shouted through the hole in the wall.

“No! I snuck out. They will think that I was devoured by wolves. They will perish with sadness! You are so cruel, Kanemori! My ghost will wail like this forever!”

He opened his door. When the orange light of the stove hit the girl, she quit her fake crying.

“You will save our village?” she asked.

“The Kura-Bugyo is an important man. If I report him, it is his word against mine, and I am without status in this district. There isn’t much I can do.” Before she could start crying again, he hurried to add, “But I suppose I could try.”

“Thank you, noble samurai!”

It was a very long walk to the city, and the local governor’s representatives would probably just turn him away, but he’d traded with these villagers, at times he’d chosen to help them, and they’d chosen to help him. It was remarkable how well folks got along without being ordered around.

“I will leave in the morning and travel to the city. I can request an audience with the Mokudai about this corrupt tax collector and—”

“There’s no time. They’re coming for father tomorrow morning. If we walk all night we can get back in time to save him.”

Well, that complicated matters. That meant engaging with the tax collector personally, and since Kanemori had no place in this province, the petty official would probably take an interruption as an insult, and the girl’s father wouldn’t be the only one executed in the morning.

But she had started crying again. And as far as Kanemori could tell, it looked real. Those tears were probably going to freeze her eyelids shut, and then he wouldn’t have to just walk all the way down to the village, but carry a blind girl too.

Kanemori sighed. “Stop that awful noise. Fine. I’ll try to save your stupid village. Let me get my sword.”

* * *

I have never been good at taking orders. Petty authority annoys me. I have always had a surly, contrarian disposition. These are not desirable traits in a samurai. A good warrior is supposed to have unquestioning loyalty to his lord, no matter how ridiculous he might be. My problem was that I always questioned everything. When I was a boy, my individualistic attitude helped me collect an inordinate number of beatings. That was good. It made me tough. Because if you are going to make it on your own wandering a world that is all about surviving as part of a group, you’d better be tough.

Luckily, by the time my family sent me off to training, I’d learned when to keep my mouth shut…mostly. I had enough natural talent with a sword that my sensei usually overlooked my flippant attitude. It turns out you can afford to give some inadvertent insults when everyone else is scared to duel you. But that only applies to equals—insult a superior, and you had better have a fast horse nearby.

In this world, every man has his place. You know it, you live it, and you pretend to love it. A good samurai would rather let his superior make a foolish decision unchallenged than bring dishonor to his name. Yes, your leader could be an imbecile giving orders that are sure to lead to ignominious defeat, but you’d better take those orders and die with a smile on your face. That is the way of things. So when you slip up and anger your betters, you need to be very valuable on the battlefield—which I was—for them to overlook it. Sadly, when peace finally came to my home province, my painful honesty outweighed my value with a sword.

Stupid peace.

I remember the day when my father gave me my sword. It had belonged to him, and his father, and his father’s father’s father, so on and so forth, back to tales of glorious battles long ago, and a family legend of a one-handed matriarch, all accompanied with a proud genealogy that was probably half forgery, and half wishful thinking. But regardless, it was an excellent sword.

I suspect he knew I was unworthy of such a legacy, but every father hopes for the best.

* * *

At sunrise the village headman ran down the steps of the storehouse, slipped through the packed snow, scooped up his little girl, and swung her around in his arms, before holding her tight. “Iyo! You’re alive! We woke up this morning and you were gone. Where have you been? We were so worried about you.”

“I went to fetch the samurai so he can save you from the officials,” the little girl declared proudly.


“Defiant Kanemori! Hero of Sekigahara!”

Kanemori cleared his throat so the headman would notice him. Personally, he hated those titles, but bored peasants like to tell stories. The little girl’s head had been filled with nonsense exaggerations about his exploits. During their journey down the mountain, she’d asked him about all of them.

Kanemori had walked all night, in the dark, in the miserable cold, lucky he hadn’t fallen off a narrow trail to his death, and now he was tired, hungry, and annoyed, and probably about to anger another official who could order him killed with so much as a nod. At least it had been a clear night, and he’d always enjoyed gazing at the stars. His father used to say he was too much of a dreamer in that respect.

“You?” The headman was shocked to see him there. He quickly regained his composure, and went into a deep bow. “Apologies for my daughter disturbing you, noble samurai.” Then he realized he probably wasn’t showing enough deference to his better and began to grovel. “So many apologies for this inconvenience.”

“Stop it. Just…” Kanemori waved his hand. “Stop all that.” He’d never been much for etiquette or social niceties.

“It was not Iyo’s place to—”

“She says you’re about to get executed for not paying your taxes and you need help. This isn’t any different than when you needed an extra man to drag that dumb ox out of the river. Today you’re the ox. Where are these officials? I’ll try and talk some sense into them.”

“Thank you! Thank you, samurai!”

“I can’t promise anything.” Over the years he’d found that any given official’s reasonableness and mercy was in direct proportionate opposition to their inflated sense of importance and level of corruption. Since they’d been assigned to administer a northern pig hole like this, he wasn’t expecting much.

“The Kura-Bugyo should be here soon. I am willing to be executed. It is better they take out their wrath on me, than steal the last of our rice from the mouths of our children.” Again, a good man was prepared to lay down his life for others. Too bad he was so poor nobody would bother to write a poem about it. He looked up, hopeful. “I would rather not die. They will listen to you.”

“Maybe. More likely they’ll still kill you, then take the rice anyway. Either way that means you have time to make me breakfast first.”

* * *

When I was young, they called me a dreamer. I suppose that is true. I imagined a world different from this one. Where a man could be free to do as he wanted, without legions of officials standing in his way. Where a man could own things without his superiors taking them away on a whim. A world where someone bold enough to make his own way could do so, and not be bound by the status of his birth. Where you could decide for yourself how to live, rather than be spent on a bloody field by a shogun.

I still imagine a world where a man could marry the woman he loved, rather than having her lord give her to another man for political expediency. A world where a samurai could protest this unfair decision, but not lose face and be condemned for his emotional outburst, and have to run away in shame…only to find out years later that she cut her own throat in protest, rather than be wed to a cruel, barbaric man instead of him.

These are silly ramblings. That is not the world we live in. Not at all.

* * *

The four men rode into the village not long after breakfast. Only Kanemori and the headman walked outside to meet them. The officials seemed amused that the rest of the peasants were hiding from them. Their haughty attitude was not so different from bandits.

Unfortunately the Kura-Bugyo was a young man. An older, wiser official might have let the slight pass. The callousness of noble youth, coupled with the unrivaled arrogance of a tax collector, meant that Kanemori had his work cut out for him. The official also had three samurai escorting him, who were acting more like friends than guards. That was another bad sign. An official would feel no need to show off for soldiers, their opinions would be beneath contempt, but the same official would strut like a rooster to save face in front of his friends.

“Where is my rice, headman?” the official shouted, not bothering to give any introduction. “I said to have it waiting. There is a wagon not far behind. Why do you waste my time?” His friends snickered.

The headman bowed so hard he nearly buried himself in the snow. Kanemori was ashamed for him. This wasn’t the emperor. This was probably some minor noble’s third or fourth son, given a job intended for a clerk, probably to get him out from underfoot, but having power over these poor people had clearly gone to his head.

Only Kanemori had promised little Iyo that he would try, so he needed to speak up before the headman’s blubbering caused this pack of dogs to get too riled up. When a deer ran, a dog’s instincts were to chase it down. Likewise, a peasant’s weakness would make a bully eager for violence.

“Greetings, honored officials.” Kanemori gave a very proper bow, showing the right amount of deference, and for the correct amount of time. He hadn’t slept through every lesson.

They didn’t even bother to get off their horses. Sitting up there must have made them feel tall.

“Who are you supposed to be?” the tax collector sneered.

“I am Kanemori. I am merely a humble friend of this village, and have come to beg for leniency for them today.”

The officials exchanged confused glances. “Who?”

“These kind people have called on me in the hopes that I might be able to appeal to your mercy. Their harvest this year was not very good, purely due to weather beyond their control and not from laziness, yet they still met their obligations. If you examine their stores, you will see that if they meet your new demands, they will not have enough food to survive the winter. They’re already eating millet only fit for livestock.”

“That’s a sad story, only it isn’t my problem,” the tax collector said.

“But if these villagers sicken and die, then next year there will be no harvest at all.” Thus far Kanemori had kept his face neutral and his voice polite, but he could feel that starting to slip. What was it with shortsighted fools? Officials who had nothing personal at stake could never see beyond their immediate gratification. “Please think of the next season, honored representative. Will your lord not be disappointed?”

“Next year I will have a better appointment.”

“You talk like a samurai, but you wear no mon,” said one of the young men. His own family signal was proudly embroidered on his sleeve with golden thread. “I think I’ve heard of this old man. He’s that ronin hermit that lives up on the mountain.”

“Ha! From his ratty clothing, I took him for another peasant!” said one of the other fine young examples of Bushido. “Have you been rolling around in the dirt to look like that?”

“He has dirt under his nails. He’s more farmer than samurai.”

“You are obviously a long way from home, old man. Step aside. You have no say here. Now where is my rice, headman?”

This was not his place. Kanemori had done all that he could. He had no further legal recourse. It was his duty to step aside. This was the world they lived in.


They’d started calling him Kanemori the Defiant for a reason. Nobody had ever accused him of being Kanemori the Eloquent.

“It isn’t your rice, boy.”

“How dare you, old man?”

“Did you grow it? Did you harvest it? No. These people did. I didn’t see your pampered ass sweating in the fields.”

It was plain the bullies were not used to that kind of response.

“This land belongs to your lord, and he appointed you to administer and defend it. From the look of you songbirds, you’ve never defended a thing. The last few times these poor saps have been menaced by bandits, they didn’t even bother calling for you. They came and got me instead. Your lord has already collected his taxes. This is about your greed. Spare me the sanctimony. I know how it works. That wagon coming down the road is probably some merchant paying you on the side.”

“Such impudence! I’ll burn this whole place down!” the tax collector bellowed.

The headman squeaked in fear, but the sound was still muffled by the snow. “Please no, young master! Have mercy.” Kanemori had forgotten about him there.

“I was feeling merciful until you got some ronin fool involved. Now you will discover what happens when you disobey your betters.”

Kanemori was old, tired, and too damned grouchy to get out of the way. His order-taking days were over. “The only difference between the government and bandits is that the bandits are at least honest about it.”

“Kill him, Shingen,” ordered the tax collector. One of them kicked his horse and it started forward. Kanemori watched him rapidly approach. It was obvious the young man wasn’t a trained cavalryman, and that was certainly no war horse, but the animal seemed used to the idea of running down peasants.

Kanemori reached for his sword. Out of practice or not, a soldier kept his instincts, and not getting pulverized by hooves was among them. He drew his blade as he smoothly stepped aside, and the cut went very deep. The animal’s front leg collapsed, the other hooves slipped, and the unseated rider flew over its head to land in the snow.

The tax collector was obviously shocked. This wasn’t what normally happened when you rode down a peasant at all. His friend was thrashing about in the suddenly red snow, trying to figure out how he’d gotten there. The horse was screaming. The other horses began bucking, terrified, at the sudden smell of hot blood, which just went to show the value of a horse properly trained for war.

There is nothing in the world quite so unnerving as the scream of a horse. Kanemori had killed a lot of men in his day, and none of them really kept him up at night, but the wide-eyed thrashing of a terrified wounded horse always bothered him, so he struck again. This time at the neck. Clean. It died quickly.

Worst-case scenario, once this was over the hungry villagers could eat the horse. Peasants were efficient like that.

* * *

It was not so much a battle, as a slaughter.

If any of those young samurai had a brain in his head, he would have stayed on his mount and ridden for help. The authorities would have come, and I would have died a criminal. But no. Fury made them dumb and pride demanded that they had to put me in my place. They were better than me. That’s just how it was. That’s how it always has been, and always must be. They don’t understand any other way. That’s how it is with these people. It’s like they’re compelled to meddle.

Such is the nature of man. We must join together to survive, but then somebody has to be in charge. Somebody always has to be in charge. And we let them. At first because we need them, but even when we really don’t anymore, they’re still there. And their power grows, and grows, and grows, until it consumes everything.

I dream of a world where a man can make his own way, but I suppose there will always be samurai and peasants.

I just wanted to be left alone.

The horse was the only clean death that morning. The rest were ugly. Damned ugly.

* * *

No honorable samurai would ever sink to the level of doing manual labor, but Kanemori had often lowered himself to help the local peasants, whether it was cutting trees, or dragging an obstinate ox from the river, or in this case, digging a shallow grave in the frozen ground.

“This must never be spoken of,” the headman told the handful of peasants who were standing around their hastily filled hole. The ground was so hard that it had taken a long time, and they’d broken a few valuable shovels in the process, but if there was one thing peasants knew how to do, it was work. By the time the sun had gone down, there was no sign the tax collector, his friends, or their merchant crony had ever come to the village at all.

“If the governor was ever to discover what happened here today, our village would be razed, and every single one of us would be beheaded as criminals.” The village headman really wanted to keep his. “We never saw our tax collector. He simply never arrived. Is that understood?”

All of the peasants agreed. Even though none of them had lifted a finger against the tax collector, those in power would never tolerate even the hint of rebellion. If there was something else peasants understood, it was how to keep a secret.

“It is unfortunate, but such things happen when there are so many bandits in these mountains,” Kanemori stated flatly. “Perhaps they will send more officials to protect you better in the future.”

Of the peasants, only young Iyo was truly glad he’d done what he had. To the rest, he’d simply complicated their already difficult lives. That’s because like him, Iyo was a dreamer. She was still naïve enough to think that one person could change things.

After the somber and terrified villagers returned to their huts, Kanemori had remained standing by the grave. Men of such stature were due a proper funeral ceremony, and a small shrine. Instead, they got a shallow pit that no one would ever speak of. Some of the villagers had thanked Kanemori, but it had been a dishonest thanks. Those who were incapable of defending themselves were often frightened of those who fought in their behalf. He saw there was fear in their eyes, directed at him, and he did not like it one bit. If he had enjoyed such things he probably would have made a fine tax collector.

It was time to move on, to find a new place, to try and make a new home again, where he could just be left alone. Where he could be free.

But there was no place like that in this world.

Kanemori gazed up at the stars, and wished for another way.

* * *

Far up the hill, past an old hut, three villagers built a pyre for the body of an old man. The corpse had mummified, and the wiry muscles of the man underneath showed through the shrunken skin.

The youngest said, “Shouldn’t we just put him in a hole? He was only an old hermit. This is costing the village money.”

“No, we must do it this way.”

“Why? He was a ronin.”

“But his kami was that of a samurai. It deserves this. You do not know what he has done for us before.”

The boy looked at the stone which was to become a discreet monument over the urn. “It’s a lot of work.”

“Just make the carving neat.”

The inscription was simple.

The Defiant.

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