The Clever Hawk

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Japan. It is the Age of Warring States. A boy bred to be an unwitting spy flees into the snow-clad mountains, finding shelter with the mysterious Yamabushi monks and the vast trails through the forest that defines their being. Yet the boy is to find the ghosts of the life he has left behind are not so easily forgotten. The Clever Hawk is speculative fiction based on fact and folklore, in a time of bloodshed and upheaval in a land with a fascinating depth and complexity of history.

Adventure / Action
Age Rating:

Chapter One

The Clever Hawk

By Clay Locke

My stride tracks the irregularities of the forest floor and it no longer feels like I am running, but rather I am stationary and the trail is unfurling towards me, the entire world twisting with every dip and curve. I am not aware of the omnipresent roar bathing my senses until it is suddenly gone, and I return with a sharp displacement and a distinct popping in my ears –

- and I’m back in that wretched compartment.

I tried to stretch against the muffled agony of cramp in my legs, but in the box made for a child even smaller than myself, I couldn’t move. As I came to my senses, I realized I have no idea how long I had been in that dream-like state. It had seemed so real; running through trees, soft loam underfoot, the wind moving through the upper canopy with a steady hushing that had seemed to emphasize my isolation in the forest…

I shook my head to clear it, wondering where these strange images had come from, for I had never ventured outside the city. Instead, I concentrated on what I could hear; far-away bumps bleeding through the wattle and daub walls, but only a heavy silence in the room outside my box.

I hesitated. The Hatakeyama could return at any moment, and no amount of talk would explain my emergence from the secret compartment in their guest chamber. Yet, I couldn’t stay, for my Master expected my report the instant they left the room. I reached for the handle of the wall, easing it open with pent breath, pushing with gentle pressure until the wood began to slide a fraction and a slight crack of light appeared.

I flinched as the entire door ripped away and sudden lamplight spilled onto my face, striking my eyes with such force it seemed a physical slap, and my field of view filled with Master Masakage’s face, his eyes small and set far apart and his jaw a weak dimple in the jowls of his cheeks. I knew a quick and sharp mind resided behind that gaze, despite the superficial lifelessness to those eyes.

“Get out, boy.” His iron hand grasped my upper arm, hauling me to my feet, the slippery texture of his formal kimono brushing against my side. My legs, weakened by both the atrophy of long inactivity and flood of fear, buckled beneath my weight.

Master Masakage’s head rose, his chest expanding, and he looked down upon me with scorn. “Speak, boy, don’t just twitch like an imbecile. What did they say?”

“My Master… They… They talked only a little…” I managed. My legs found some measure of strength and attempted to stand but my master still held my upper arm. I was bound to him, his grip tight. The blood in my veins sounded like a roaring river in my ears, and although my eyes were fixed firmly upon the woven reeds of the floor, I could almost feel his gaze like a physical heat, his grip about my arm relentless, his will slicing into my soul as easily as a blade into the belly of a fish.

“You’re hiding something. Everything, boy. Tell me everything.”

I closed my eyes and attempted to calm my mind. How much did I remember? My memories were strangely hazy. Everything seemed like some strange dream whose details had now evaporated like mist. I put myself back, hearing again the clink of small cups as sake was poured between them, a leisurely sound contrasting to the choked stream of cramp demanding attention as it had worked its way up my legs and into my lower back. As I had listened I had tried to accept the pain and absorb it, as my master had taught.

“We can’t do it,” one of the family had said, his voice only slightly muffled by the thin wall between us. “The whole plan, it’s foolish. Why risk his wrath?”

“Lord Date is becoming ruthless; it’s only a matter of time before he comes for our lands. He cares not if we are kin.”

“But this plan is lunacy!”

“Quiet, both of you,” another older voice had cautioned. “We will speak no more of it.”

My curiosity piqued, yet the warning had been enough, for nobody spoke again. In that silence, I sensed the spark of friction caused by the heightened nerves and the disparity of opinion. Then… A dream… How much of what I had heard had been real?

“Boy,” said Masakage, his grip tightening and voice dropping to an urgent hiss. “They now dine with the father of Lord Date. If there is something I need to know, now is the time.”

Everything in the world seemed to stop. To this day, I do not know why I lied, but the words sprang to my lips and in a moment it was too late to take them back.

“They were silent.”

“The whole time? There is nothing, nothing at all I need to know?”

Panic roiled silently within my gut and could only shake my head. Master Masakage took my chin in his hand and jerked my head up so he could look me in the eye. He studied me for what seemed an eternity and I pushed every bubbling emotion down deep to meet his gaze. He gave a snarl and released me and I staggered back and lost my footing, falling against the low table in the center of the room, sending cups spinning. I picked myself up hurriedly but my master did not linger. Framed in the doorway his silhouette had an imperious aspect, billowing pants cinched at the waist with a sash that fell to his ankles whipping like a snake, the shoulders of his starched sleeveless jacket exaggerated into points.

“Get to your chamber boy,” he said, his back to me. “I will deal with you later.”

My ribs ached from where I had struck the edge of the table but I tried to ignore it, and instead moved swiftly to pick up what I had scattered and straightening the table, trying not to think about what I had just done, but the thoughts came anyway. Why had I lied? If only I had not fallen asleep! If a pit had opened in the earth I would have unflinchingly thrown myself into its depths and been done with this wretched life. I ground a palm against my forehead, as if that pressure alone could hold back the brimming tears, my face twisted into a deject grimace advertising my utter worthlessness.

My feet took me through narrow side corridors, a servant’s route that twisted through the castle. I chose the darkest and least used so that although sounds of activity were close at hand, I passed nobody. I reached the servants’ vestibule and stepped down to a section of flooring lower than the main floor and I ducked outside in the chill winter night.

The cold dashed upon exposed skin and penetrated my thin layer of clothing, drawing instant gooseflesh. With every inhalation came a searing pain in my lungs and a giddy satisfaction of self-flagellation. As the moments passed I realized it was more than that, for as my core temperature waned so too did my misery. Shame bleed away, leaving nothing but numbness. I took a score of steps into the darkness, looking up at the vast dome of an inky black and star-strewn sky. At my back, the sounds and smells from the windows of warm orange light in the main building seemed a world away.

Not wishing to draw the attention of patrolling guards I moved further into the shadows and dropped into a crouch, holding my hands about my ankles, head between my knees. Thoughts spun through my head but none made any sense and I simply waited, fearing to return and face my master’s wrath, knowing the longer I lingered the worse it would be, and the deeper the lines of his cane would be drawn across my back.

A loud crash from within the castle caught my attention. Lights flared into life in windows, sounds of shouting, and in the darkness some distance away a group of people began to run. I knuckled tears from my eyes and saw through the small leaves of a manicured hemlock shrub a confused bunch of shapes dash through the darkness, and what appeared to be someone carrying a bulky load upon their shoulder. They argued between one another in urgent tones but I was not close enough to catch their words. After some confusion, they disappeared out of my view and I heard the rattle of metal and leather. Then came the clatter of hooves dancing upon stones and in moments they were up in the saddle and riding four horses straight out of the main gate, huddled low and snapping the reins urgently. No shout of challenge rose; either the guards at the gate were absent or they too had been taken by surprise.

The quiet after their passing seemed unnatural. A slight wind lifted and rustled the leaves, and somewhere far off came the croak of frogs. With every instinct and frayed nerve in me crying out for caution I edged toward the snickering and uneasy settling of those disturbed horses left behind in the stables. It was my task to gather information, and such was the peculiar haste of the riders that I knew my master would want to know what had happened here.

This was my chance at redemption. I would discover the cause of the disturbance, report it immediately. Perhaps it might go some way to alleviate my failure.

I stood there with every hair on my body standing on edge with fear, the cold now forgotten, and pushed open the door. It was dark inside, yet the wave of warmth that washed out carried with it the comforting smell of horses and straw. Of the stablemaster and his boys, I could see nor hear nothing.

A bright shaft of light came from the castle; I stepped backward sharply into the shadows again. A bunch of men holding aloft lanterns fanned into the yard, casting a dancing army of shadows as they searched, dispersing like spilling water and shouting at one another. A cry was raised as someone found something at the guard gate, and a second later another man’s voice;

“The stable doors are open!”

I backed further into the bushes, away from the light and activity with my heart racing. My place of concealment grew stark with approaching lanterns, and I was fortunate to be slender enough to slip between the bushes but the crowd was growing fast and I had to push my way through them, working my way against the current of milling servants and onlookers.

“They’ve taken their horses!”

Like the gossamer tendrils of a forgotten dream, talk of the Hatakeyama’s plan came back to me. I shook my head and squeezed my eyes closed against the high-pitched ringing in my head made the whole world feel suddenly distant. I hardly heard the cries of alarm as word spread, the castle coming alive.

Then, in the crowd, a familiar face: Master Masakage, in his ostensible role as scroll-master in close attendance with some court nobles. There was a crowd between us and I ducked my head instantly, but nothing escaped him. In that fraction of a heartbeat I saw his eyes move and lock with mine and his brows furrow but he was swept along with the group he was with and I was free for the moment to flee.

I darted across the remaining ground and entered a vestibule just as a group of men rounded the corner. Councilors to the Lord Date. They spoke quickly over the top of one another as they walked, hardly seeing me as I hugged the wall, holding my breath to seem small. As they passed I caught fragments of conversation.

“Has Lord Date been informed of the abduction?”

“Word had been relayed.”

“And you’re sure of it. The Hatakeyama?”

“Their horses are gone. There can be no doubt.”

“Where are…”

The voices faded as the councilors rounded a corner. Abduction? My mind raced. The Hatakeyama had come to petition for peace. Then I recalled the racing shadows and the heavy load carried between them that only now I realized had been that of a man bound and wrapped.

There could be no more flight, there could be no petition for forgiveness. It was not courage but cowardice that carried me deeper into the castle to face my punishment. The door of my master’s chamber was open but within was dark, only vague shadows and shapes within hinting at the shelves stacked with ledgers and scrolls. To the unassuming, the air within hung heavy with the smell of ink and paper associated with a master scribe, yet to my nose, it was the heavy air of a tiger’s den.

I heard a barking voice raising in anger approaching and saw figures appear at the end of the wide corridor. I shrunk back against the wall as I saw who it was that approached, enervating dizziness almost making me drop as my strength hemorrhaged from my body. There could be no mistaking the figure of Lord Date, the One-Eyed Dragon himself. He was flanked on either side by two samurai warriors, white threads lacing scarab black plates of armor, curved curtain of their bell helmets over faceplates cast into a permanent scowl. A cowering servant moved with shuffling feet to keep pace between the two samurai warriors, his head bent in supplication. Lord Date gestured imperiously as he walked, and although I could not catch the words I could well guess the intent, for the servant bobbed and cringed obediently.

“Send messages to all of them,” Lord Date said. “You’ve wasted enough time. Where is it? No, not now, you fool, if you’d done your job properly then you’d know.”

They were getting closer, and suddenly I realized that the trailing figure was Master Masakage, his feet shuffling and head still bowed. Suddenly I knew I could not be here, I could not be privy to this humiliation.

I looked down the length of the corridor, judging the distance. I could not flee without being seen. I took a step backward and slipped into my master’s room and stood, turning circles, the tatami matting at my feet creaking like thin ice cracking and spidering outwards, announcing my uninvited presence. One, two, three times I spun, looking for a place to hide as the voice of Lord Date grew clearer and clearer.

“… I told you before. Just get the messages out, now!”

The entourage had paused outside the still-open door. Lord Date’s voice dropped and I heard a creak against the wall as if a body were being pressed up against it.

“I have given you what you wished and you have failed me, spymaster! I want my father back, safe, unharmed. And then I want you to pay!”

I jumped as the wall rattled, the force of whatever had impacted almost going straight through the flimsy wooden panel.

Footsteps resumed and the creak of articulated armor faded as they walked on. I dropped to my knees and rolled just as Master Masakage appeared in the doorway.

I lay as still as I possibly could and watched from beneath the shelving. Dust was in my nose. With dread I saw a corner of my sleeve still lay exposed; I dare not move for fear the movement would attract attention. Master Masakage paced into the center of the room and then, from the attitude of his feet, I judged he turned his back on me and faced the door. I took a gamble and withdrew my exposed sleeve, bringing it close to my body.

I heard the door shut with a savage swish-clack and I saw my master’s feet peeking from beneath his long robe as he stepped across the room, directly toward me, the shadows within the room skewing mightily as he brought the candle with him.

This was it. Of course, he knew where I lay. Why had I even bothered to hide?

To my surprise, a hand did not reach down and haul me out. Instead, I heard a thunk as he placed the candle holder on the shelving top and felt the creak of the wood as he slumped onto it, his spread feet so close I smelt the sweat and stink of his winter socks.

I tried to calm my breathing, to take only tiny sips of air, but my lungs burned. The air rasped in and out like the crinkle of a paper lantern and my heart beat a heavy staccato, pumping straight up into my head, coming up against the drum of my inner ear with an incompressible thud-thud-thud. There came the sound of an ink bottle being uncapped and a soft rustle of a quill being dipped, but then sudden silence. There was no scratching of pen upon paper, only a heavy quiet. I felt sure I would be found within moments, yet time passed, and still Masakage did not move. Was he toying with me?

There was a sudden crash, the sound of a fist coming down, and everything upon the shelf leaped and clattered. I barely restrained a yelp of fear.

Then there was a choke of indrawn breath.

I couldn’t believe it. It was the sound of defeat; the old man’s sighs had turned into barely restrained sobs.

The sounds of a beaten man.

Surely nobody had ever been privileged to peer into this crack, to see within the impenetrable shield; Masakage was a man who was always right, always in control. Not once had he openly praised me, only occasionally had I gained the merest nod of approval. Other than that, his face was always a mask, as confident as a god. To see this humanity…

There came a light rapping at the door and in two quick strides, he was at the door, sliding it open. “Get in,” he hissed, pulling in a someone into the room and closing the door against swiftly.

I saw that it was a child, of height around my own, hooded in a shapeless cloak, facing my hiding place yet the hood cast deep shadows and I could see nothing but the glint of eyes within. I shrunk further back, fearing I had been seen.

Masakage dropped to one knee. “Did anyone see you?”

A slight shake of the head.

“Good,” said Masakage. “Good.” He placed both hands upon the child’s shoulders and his voice dropped into a whisper I had to strain to catch. “It was him. I know it. The bastard was in on it… My moronic apprentice…”

I almost started from my hiding spot to protest the unjust conclusion but managed to hold back the aching urge to throw myself at his mercy, and it was well I did for in the next breath he said:

“Find him, bring him here. He will answer for his crimes.”

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