Duel On Hakkojji Bridge (Three Crow Press Fiction)
Duel On Hakkojji Bridge by: A.R. Williams
Hakkojji Bridge was old and beautiful. It stretched for a quarter mile, but since it was too narrow to allow two people to walk side-by-side, every hundred feet a small nook or resting place was constructed so that those passing from the south to the north or the north to the south could step aside and let the higher ranking traveler pass. These resting places were also used by the aged to rest and many times a young man or boy could be seen fishing from the bridge at these locations. However, the problem occurred near the center of the bridge and was viewed by many to be the only flaw in an otherwise perfect construction. There was no resting place.
Therefore, in order to pass, one individual had to backtrack to the nearest nook and allow the other to proceed. In many regards this is the reason that a second much larger bridge had to be built three miles downstream. It was also the reason that Hakkojji Bridge had earned so many nicknames within the community.
To royalty it was known as the Emperor’s Bridge, for those from the lower classes had to move and make way for those above them. To the peasant’s it was called the Ass’s Pass. Since they had to make way for everyone else, they got nowhere themselves. The most interesting name was the Bridge of Destiny. If two samurai of equal rank, going in opposite directions, met in the middle of the bridge, one of them must yield—or die.
The paper lantern cast a golden glow, keeping the darkness at bay. Maeda Ujisada knelt in a corner as Imamura attended to Master Hachirobei, whose breathing had grown shallower with each passing hour. Imamura inserted needles into Hachirobei’s chest, then tapped the end of the needle with long thin fingers.
Ujisada held his breath as he watched. After many moments had passed, Imamura sat up and removed a scroll from his bag. He wrote with slow delicate strokes and then handed the scroll to Ujisada.
“I have done what I can to ease Hachirobei’s suffering. You will need to go to Yasaka Village and purchase medicine to complete his healing.” Imamura passed Ujisada the scroll. “This is the medicine you will need to get. Give it to Aoki Taisho and he will fill the prescription for you.”
Ujisada bowed. “Thank you, Master Imamura.”
Rolling up the scroll Ujisada placed it in his pack and then stood. He reached for his naginata.
“And you must hurry Ujisada. My actions have only delayed Hachirobei’s condition. Without the medicine he will die.”
“How long do I have, Master Imamura?”
“I do not know. It would be best if you return before the setting sun.”
Ujisada paused. “Then would it not be better for me to go to Master Kahae?”
Imamura shook his head. “Today is the day the new bridge opens. Master Kahae is attending the parade and the emperor’s physician does not have the time to be bothered by lowly monks.”
Ujisada bowed. “Then I will return before the sun sets.”
The sun was already high overhead when Ujisada made it to the new bridge. It looked like a dragon, red with green scales. Nobles lined the street on either side of the road, but no one was crossing the bridge. It stood empty as Ujisada pushed his way through the crowd, keeping an eye out for Master Kahae just in case he happened to run into the man.
As he got closer to the Emperor’s Gate, Ujisada could smell paint from the bridge. As he was about to step foot onto the bridge he was stopped by an imperial guard.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the guard asked.
Ujisada smiled at him, he recognized the man. “Nagayoshi Asakura, my old friend. I am on an important mission for my master.”
Asakura glared at him, perhaps not remembering where they had met. Ujisada hoped he did not remember. “I don’t know you,” Asakura finally said.
“It’s me! Maeda Ujisada.”
Asakura only looked at him with a blank stare. “You cannot pass.”
“Please, Asakura. It is a matter of life and death.”
“Yes. My death if I let you pass.”
“I will be very quick. No one will notice me.”
Ujisada edged around him, gazed at the bridge. “What are we waiting for? I thought the bridge was supposed to be open by now.”
“The painters finished painting this morning,” Asakura said. “The emperor has delayed the opening of the bridge until it has dried.”
Ujisada knelt down and touched the bridge. He held his fingers up for Asakura to study them. “The bridge is dry, Asakura.”
Ujisada stepped forward. A katana barred his path. “I remember you now,” Asakura said with an evil grin. “Lucky for you I do not wish to spoil the Emperor’s Gate on its first day. Otherwise, it would be your head.”
Asakura pointed. “Use the Fool’s Bridge.”
Ujisada looked upstream. Three miles. He touched Asakura’s arm. “Please, my master is ill and may die if I do not bring him his medicine.”
Asakura grinned. “Then you should run.”
Ujisada bent over, his hands resting on his knees, and struggled to catch his breath. It was just as he thought. The bridge was crowded and even worse everyone was going in the same direction. Towards him. He picked up his naginata and walked to the end of the bridge. The line of people kept coming; there was no room for him to push his way through. It would be nightfall before he was able to get anywhere this way.
The sun strolled across the heavens, the shadows beneath him growing longer. He looked down the length of the bridge. It would be quicker to swim. Then he smiled to himself as he saw the crowd part for an imperial messenger.
The man jogged comfortably, his gold coat glinting in the sun. Ujisada never liked the clothes the messengers wore, but suddenly he had a new fondness for them.
Aoki Taisho stared at Ujisada with questioning eyes. “Are you all right?”
Ujisada tried to catch his breath, but could only shake his head yes. He handed Master Aoki the prescription. Master Aoki took the scroll, looked at it, then looked back at Ujisada. Ujisada could tell what Aoki was thinking. Why would the emperor request medicine from him?
He filled the prescription quickly. When he returned Ujisada had regained his breath and stood up to accept the medicine. Smoothing out the golden coat he had stolen from the messenger, Ujisada bowed and thanked Master Aoiki.
Master Aoki bowed back and smiled. “It is rare that I see a messenger so out of breath.”
“Yes,” Ujisada said. “The emperor has had me busy bringing messages all day.”
Master Aoki’s eyebrows rose and his smile widened. His stare locked with Ujisada’s eyes. “It is even rarer that I encounter one with naginata and the shoes of a monk.”
Ujisada gazed down at his waraji.
“It is always wise for a man to remain true to himself before crossing the Emperor’s Gate,” Master Aoki said with a bow. “Messengers especially. Give my regards to your master.”
Ujisada bowed. “Thank you, master.”
The bridge was empty when Ujisada returned; he removed the messengers coat and threw it into the river. Drums from the parade sounded off in the distance and he could hear the people shout in approval. He was late; it would be nightfall by the time he returned. Ujisada feared that he may be too late. He hurried forward and noticed that someone had already entered from the other side.
Ujisada jogged to beat the man to the center of the bridge. However, they arrived in the middle at the same time. Both men stopped.
Asakura laughed when he saw Ujisada. “Ujisada, you must go back. I am samurai.”
Ujisada bowed. “I ask that you allow me to pass.”
“Why would I do that?” Asakura said in a slurred voice.
Ujisada could tell that Asakura was drunk. “My master, I told you of him. I must return in order to save his life, time is of the essence.”
“Go back Ujisada. I am in need of rest. I have been guarding the Emperor’s Gate all day,” Asakura said. He motioned with his hands, indicating that Ujisada should retreat.
“I will not go back. Let me pass.”
Nagayoshi Asakura’s face turned red. “Ujisada! You are a fool. I am samurai.” Asakura pulled himself up taller as he said this. “It is you who must make room for me.”
Ujisada shook his head no. “Asakura, you are the fool! The emperor decreed two moons ago that those passing from the north to the south had the right of way. So, not only are you a fool, you’re in violation of the law.”
Asakura pounded on his chest. “I am samurai.”
Ujisada sat down on the bridge and crossed his legs beneath him. He lay his naginata by his side. “I heard you the first time.” Reaching into his bag he pulled out a bowl of rice and chopsticks. “If you wish to pass jump over me. Otherwise, I would appreciate it if you did not spoil my meal with pointless conversation.”
Asakura drew his katana and raised it above his head. “I will ruin your meal with your head rolling around on the bridge.”
Asakura brought his sword slicing down. Ujisada rolled over backwards, his bowl of rice still in his hands. The blade missed him, but sliced off a piece of his robe. Ujisada rose to his feet shaking his head.
He threw the rice in Asakura’s face then slid his foot underneath his naginata and kicked it into the air. He caught it with both hands as Asakura came at him with another blow. Ujisada deflected the thrust easily then struck upward with the butt end of his naginata, catching Asakura in the stomach and knocking him back.
Asakura screamed. His eyes were wide as he charged forward, his katana raised above his head. Ujisada spun out of the way, jumped up on the railing then delivered a kick to Asakura’s back. Asakura lost his balance and fell forward landing on the ground his katana fallen from his grasp. Ujisada jumped down from the railing. He picked up his pack then bowed to Asakura who was still lying on the ground.
“Thank you for the practice, Asakura. I enjoyed it. May Buddha bless you.”
Asakura grabbed his katana and slowly rose to his feet.
“Where do you think you’re going? This isn’t over between us!”
Ujisada frowned. “It is over, Asakura. We have each passed by the other. You are now free to go your way and I am free to go mine.”
“You sniveling dog! I said it isn’t over.”
Ujisada tightened the straps on his pack. He looked at Asakura, his dark eyes serious. “I do not know why some men wish to meet death before their time.”
Asakura smiled. “When I send you to hell, you can ask them.”
Ujisada held his ground, his naginata held lightly in his right hand. “It is your choice to make Asakura. Which shall it be?”
Asakura grinned as he edged forward. Ujisada took a single step closer to his opponent. In the water, an image of the sun danced on the waves. Three miles.
Asakura came at him. Ujisada stepped back and retreated. He raised his naginata, deflected Asakura’s blade to the side. Feinted. Stepped back.
The naginata spun in Ujisada’s hands, struck, butt end first and missed. Asakura laughed, charged forward, encouraged by Ujisada’s defensive retreat. The blade struck, arcing back and forth. Slicing, searching, moving. Faster, faster.
With every strike, Ujisada took the opportunity to move closer to the end of the bridge. He somersaulted back, spun up onto the rail. The naginata darted forward, like a snake, again, again, again. And then Ujisada would retreat. The closer he moved to land, the more frustrated Ujisada became. Asakura seemed to fight better drunk than sober. Ujisada did not want to kill him. Especially after the prank he had played on him. So he retreated, all the while Asakura’s drunken laugh hounded him.
“Stand still, Ujisada,” Asakura growled. “I want to fight, not dance.”
The blade came close to cutting him. Ujisada ducked, flipped backwards. He had room to disengage. He turned and ran. Asakura did not pursue him, only shouted insults. “I am samurai, little monk. You should have known better. Next time you cross, you remember your place.”
The sun was gone now. Dipped below the horizon and making its way to the other side of the world. The drums beat with each step Ujisada took. The drums beat with each ache of his heart. He ran and did not stop. He ran as though death was at his heels.
When he entered the room of Master Hachirobei, it was as though he had never left. The paper lantern had been moved to a new location. Master Imamura knelt on the tatami mats, his head bowed as though in prayer. A soft snore escaped his lips, revealing the truth of the matter.
Ujisada watched the rise and fall of Master Hachirobei’s chest. He still lived. Falling to his knees by his master’s side, Ujisada took the frail hand into his own. The hand was cool to the touch. He was not too late. Hachirobei lived.
Imamura’s eyes opened as Ujisada shook him. “Am I too late?” Ujisada asked.
“Hachirobei is strong,” Imamura said taking the medicine Ujisada offered him. “We will discover the will of the gods in the morning. Get some rest, Ujisada. You’ve earned it.”
“How can I rest when my failure may cost Master Hachirobei his life?”
Imamura touched Ujisada’s arm.
As the sun ruled the day, so the moon ruled the night. Ujisada stood vigil by his master’s side. When dawn came, the room turned to gold. Warmth had returned to Hachirobei’s hand. His eyes fluttered open. Master Imamura and Ujisada gazed down at him.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Imamura said.
Ujisada bowed and kissed Hachirobei’s hand. Hachirobei tightened his fingers over Ujisada’s. “I am glad you chose not to leave us.”
Hachirobei nodded weakly. “Ay. That is a bridge I am not yet ready to cross.”