When Sōjōbō, lord of all tengu, was quite old and Shanaō, the boy who would go to war and win too often, was quite young, they met.
It was a beautiful spring night. The moon had risen full-faced and cast its soft light on the flowers in bloom on the trees. Young Shanaō, a page boy destined never to take the tonsure, was looking upon them with great pleasure. He was there with several monks and other novices from the temple on Mt. Kurama.
Sōjōbō, dressed in the guise of a wandering monk, walked into the clearing where the humans were. His staff thudded on the ground and made it quake. His eyes glowed and moonlight glinted off the curve of his beak. The older monks screamed and fled; the younger boys took off after them.
Shanaō alone stayed. He rose from where he had been sitting on a mat and came to stand before Sōjōbō, looking up at him from his diminutive height.
Sōjōbō tilted his head to one side. The metal rings on his staff chimed together like bells. 'Are you frightened, little boy?'
'No,' Shanaō replied. 'Should I be?'
Sōjōbō's eyes flared red in the night. The shadow of enormous unseen wings fell behind him on the grass. His razor beak was curved like an ugly, inverted smile. 'No,' he decided. 'I will teach you how to make others fear you, if you wish.'
'By being ugly like you?' Shanaō asked, just as unmoved. 'That's impossible, I'm afraid. They say I'm very pretty.'
'And so you are,' Sōjōbō agreed.
There was a future to this boy that Sōjōbō could see: fighting, war, death and more death to come in his wake. The boy would sail like a proud ship across an ocean of other men's blood until he foundered on the jagged rocks of peacetime. His destiny made Sōjōbō hungry.
'I shall teach you the art of sword,' Sōjōbō told Shanaō. 'Every blade you pick up, you will master. I shall teach you the art of battle; every skirmish you engage in, you will win. Then I will teach you the art of war. Every battle you start, you will finish as the victor. I will teach you all of these things, my pupil.'
'Because you will fight beautifully,' Sōjōbō said. 'And I like wars that are very pretty.'
Shanaō said, 'My mother says I am to become a monk.'
'Only what your father's bloodline commands of you will matter,' Sōjōbō assured him.
'I do not know who my father is.'
'You will, soon enough. Now come with me. Pretty things need to know how to cut down the things that will try to take advantage of them.'
Shanaō learned quickly. Sōjōbō taught him the secrets of the world: how mankind's universe was all made of one substance, and how to bend it to his will. Humans were a limited medium, but even then they could be stretched, and Shanaō could stretch further than most.
'Everything is as everything else,' Sōjōbō told the boy as Shanaō learned to move with the wind and see like the stars. 'The words of all sutras dissolve and are one with nature; nature can take all forms and becomes you. You can walk that path backwards and draw power from all the Paradises and all of the Hells.'
'I just want to be the best swordsman that ever lived,' Shanaō grumbled, 'and you're talking about the universe and Paradise and Hell. I'm not that complicated.'
'Talented but simple,' Sōjōbō sighed. 'That is an accurate assessment of your particular genius. Nevertheless, these skills will one day serve you well.'
'Because I'll use them to become the best swordsman who ever lived,' Shanaō repeated himself. Sōjōbō could not fault him for naive, but dogged, single-mindedness.
'That will be someone else,' Sōjōbō lectured him sternly. 'You name is not Musashi. You are meant for something much grander.'
Shanaō threw himself off of the top of the tree he was standing on and flipped gracefully onto the ground. His feet landed with barely a whisper. 'You keep talking about war...'
Sōjōbō smoothed Shanaō's messy hair back into something resembling neatness. 'War is my element.'
'Are you very bored when no one is fighting, then?'
'Extremely,' Sōjōbō sighed. His disappointment was genuine. 'I have been extremely bored for quite some time. I approached Kiyomori when he was younger –'
'Lord Kiyomori, my guardian?'
'One and the same. But Taira no Kiyomori,' Sōjōbō said, tapping Shanaō on the nose, 'unlike you, is afraid of my voice.'
'You do sound like a dying bird,' Shanaō admitted, readying his sword and stance again for the next part of practice.
Sōjōbō laughed, and it did sound like screams in the night. 'We will work on your diplomacy, little one. Now again, step, step, parry – I will skewer you if you are not quick enough, so up, up, move your feet!'
Shanaō left the mountain, as Sōjōbō knew he would one day.
'I am going to avenge my father,' his boy told him the day before he left. No longer quite a boy anymore, Sōjōbō supposed: he had grown tall, though he still was beautiful and not handsome. 'I am going to the capital, and then on to Ōshu.'
'Try not to get your head cut off until it is due time,' Sōjōbō said to him, lazily. 'You might achieve that by keeping your mouth shut more often.'
Shanaō, who had been kneeling respectfully before him, looked up. 'My lord, you do not say that often about my mouth.'
'That is because I am impossible to insult, whether you mean to or not,' Sōjōbō retorted, but when Shanaō was smiling it was hard to be angry. 'Go. Remember what I have taught you.'
Shanaō bowed and left. Sōjōbō watched him go down the mountain and out into the world, where no doubt he would remember how to to kill another man but never how to flatter him. Only one of those would kill him.
Sōjōbō stroked a hand down his beak, and made up his mind to go, for the first time in many years, hundreds of years, down from Sōjō-ga-tani and into the world.
But first, he needed a body.
Sōjōbō did not have to look far to find himself what he wanted. Mount Shosha to the west, after all, was on fire, and all because of one monk who had – for all his erudition – more vim in his blood than sense in his head. He had tossed a fellow monk who had insulted him off of a roof; his victim had been holding a burning torch. The torch had set the wooden temple complex alight. It was all chaos and fire at Engyōji tonight, and the flames threw dancing shadows of hell up against the dark mountainside.
Men like this were disciples of Sōjōbō, whether they knew it or not. Said man was fleeing in the night towards the capital. Sōjōbō crossed his path, coming out from the darkness to stand in the middle of the road. The man stopped and made deferential motions, noticing Sōjōbō's priestly attire.
'Who are you?' Sōjōbō asked him.
The monk said, 'My name is Saitō Musashibō Benkei, a monk of Mt. Hiei –'
Sōjōbō raised a hand. 'That is enough; I know who you are.'
Benkei bristled. 'Then why did you ask me my name?'
'To hear you speak it, so I could take it,' Sōjōbō told him, and killed Benkei where he stood.
Sōjōbō made a fire by the roadside and skinned the corpse before putting it on a spit. While dinner roasted, he fashioned a tsuzumi drum with the new leather, pulling it tight over both heads so that the instrument would make a good sound. He named the drum Hatsune. Afterwards, belly full, he picked his teeth with the white toothpicks made of fingerbones, and then yesteryear's Oniwaka who had become Musashibō Benkei again became someone and something else.
It was glorious to feel satiated again, Sōjōbō thought to himself as his mind narrowed itself down into human corridors, as the world's mysteries quietened themselves a little so that they could all fit in this one body.
It couldn't all fit, in truth. In the reflection of a pool of water, Sōjōbō watched Benkei's lips curl up to reveal too many teeth when he smiled, and Benkei's eyes bulge when he forgot to blink. It would take practice to shamble along like this.
But when he touched a warm hand to his own cheek, Sōjōbō remembered that there were good things to come of temporary mortality just as there were trivial annoyances.
Still, he reflected as he took himself down to the capital, it would not do to limit one's self too much. So Musashibō Benkei carried on his back alongside his sword his mallet and his rake and his sickle and his saw and his axe and his glaive and his staff.
It was a limited selection to do battle with, Sōjōbō – lord of all tengu, master of all implements – thought. But this adventure, for his boy's sake, was always going to have required some compromise.
Taking nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine swords from humans no better than rats was not an achievement, it was the idle passing of time.
Beneki waited under the Gojō bridge, eyes closed and senses expanded, until he heard the lark-cry whistle of a flute.
He roused and planted himself firmly on the other side of the bridge from the boy who had been Shanaō, who was now Kurō Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was so absorbed in his playing that he came very near to walking into Benkei.
'Oh?' Yoshitsune said, putting his flute away. 'What's this? Are you the one who's been taking swords from people? You won't have mine easily.' He moved his hand through the air over the golden sword he wore at his waist. 'It's an heirloom. I won't give it away easily.'
'Fine, then!' Benkei roared, because it was hard to keep one's voice down when thousands of years of berserk god-energy had to contain itself in just one man. Sōjōbō was quite enjoying feeling drunk, constantly, on humanity. 'I shall take it from you in a fair match. Face me!'
'Very well,' Yoshitsune said, so gentle still. 'We shall fight for it.'
They fought like they had fought a hundred times before, except this time Benkei had no intention on schooling anyone. He fought for display, and not of his own powers: to the onlookers who had gathered to watch the delicate youth fighting a boorish older monk, Yoshitsune was a vision that took one's breath away.
Good, Benkei thought. Watch, witness, and remember this young man.
Yoshitsune bested Benkei after a spell. Benkei knelt; he was bleeding from where Yoshitsune had dealt him the winning blow. His blood was more black than it was red, but in the darkness it would be hard to tell.
Yoshitsune stepped in front of him. His sandals were all that Benkei could see with his head bent. 'Well?' Yoshitsune asked, impetuous. 'Are you willing to follow me instead of doing this every night?'
Benkei, not caring for onlookers, bowed his head low and in the process kissed the tops of Yoshitsune's feet.
'I will serve you,' he said into Yoshitsune's strangled silence.
'Oh,' Yoshitsune said, voice turned faint in response to obsequience. 'Very... very well. Get up, then, I don't want to step on you accidentally...'
Benkei followed Yoshitsune from that day forth, as he would for the rest of his life. Whose life that was, it was sometimes impossible to tell.
Sōjōbō did not expressly try to be discreet. It was hard not to be simply one's self, even when bound up in another. Some days Benkei would roar like a lion; other days Benkei would recite verse like a Fujiwara courtier. Some days Benkei got drunk and would toss one of Yoshitsune's other retainers into a river; other days Benkei sat in council with his master and cautioned against imprudent action. Some days Benkei's weapons seemed to appear out of thin air; other days Benkei's old back groaned at the weight of those same weapons. Some days Benkei's smile was a razor-beaked gash of a thing across his face; other days, just a smile.
Yoshitsune never noticed, because to him Benkei was a loyal retainer, and therefore free of fault as long as he followed without question.
Which Benkei did.
He followed Yoshitsune to Ōshu.
'The Fujiwara haven't had any fight in them for decades,' Benkei sighed as he helped Yoshitsune find a new saddle for his horse.
'You sometimes talk like such an old man,' Yoshitsune clucked at him.
'I am an old man,' Benkei said, but Yoshitsune did not gather his meaning.
He followed Yoshitsune to Kisegawa.
'The fact that you were born from the same father matters to Yoritomo insofar as you are of Genji stock,' Benkei said to Yoshitsune as Yoshitsune celebrated the reunion with his kin. 'Beware the Lord of Kamakura.'
'He is my brother,' Yoshitsune said, incredulous.
He followed Yoshitsune to Uji, his first major battle.
'If he will fight Yoshinaka,' Benkei said to Yoshitsune, 'who else do you think he will fight to get what he wants?'
'Yoshinaka is from a different clan branch,' Yoshitsune, flush with victory. His eyes were wild in recollection of how he had whipped his horse into a froth fording the river to get to his cousin. 'It is not the same. Enough with your sedition! Come and drink with me! '
They were celebrating. Benkei said, 'Yes, my lord,' and raised his cup in praise of this being the start of something unstoppable. He followed Yoshitsune to Awazu.
He followed Yoshitsune to Ichi-no-Tani.
They got dead drunk in the aftermath. Yoshitsune, by now in the full bloom of his early adulthood and no longer a boy, commanded Benkei to his sleeping quarters and banished all others. After helping Yoshitsune out of most of his layers, Benkei bent on one knee and helped Yoshitsune out of his sandals and, once more, kissed his feet.
'Do you like doing that?' Yoshitsune asked him, breathing shallow and eyes blown wide with desire and residual euphoria.
'I have always been honoured to be your humble servant, my lord,' Benkei said.
'Would you serve me in some other ways?'
'I have always pledged to serve you in any way,' Benkei said.
'Kiss my feet again,' Yoshitsune ordered.
Afterwards, as Benkei applied moxa onto Yoshitsune's shoulders while the man dozed in his arms, the sound of a flute came floating across the camp.
'Who is playing that melody so beautifully?' Yoshitsune asked, drowsy.
'The ghost of Taira no Atsumori, here to haunt us forever,' Benkei said in the voice of prophecy.
'What did you say?'
Benkei finished with the moxa and touched Yoshitsune on the back, fingers bumping down the ridges of the man's spine. 'I said it is likely one of Lord Noriyori's retainers. One of them is a deft musician.'
'Oh,' Yoshitsune yawned. 'I shall have to find out his name.'
He would later follow Yoshitsune to Dan-no-Ura, but first Benkei followed Yoshitsune through the trials and tribulations of navigating an imperial court in its death throes.
'It must have been a mistake,' Yoshitsune fretted after hearing of Noriyori's promotion to the Junior Fifth Lower rank. He had received no promotion – nor even recognition – of his own. 'I've asked my brother for a recommendation many times; he knows it holds me back at court to be titleless, since I am his representative in Kyoto.'
'There was no mistake, I think,' said Benkei, busy sharpening a knife on a whetstone. They were keeping private counsel and there was no one to be appalled that he had a naked blade drawn in front of his lord and master. Yoshitsune, on his part, thought it a perfectly natural thing for Benkei to do, possibly because he seemed to think that Benkei had too many weapons not to maintain them at any opportunity. Benkei, who in his time had witnessed despair enough to fill seven hells, found in this a new flavour of despair over his lord's naivety.
'It must be a mistake of omission,' Yoshitsune insisted, but now he did not sound so sure.
There came a polite intrusion in the form of a messenger, who brought a letter for Yoshitsune from the retired emperor. Benkei smiled at him. The messenger hastily retreated.
'Ah!' Yoshitsune cried, delighted upon reading the missive. 'I have been granted the appointments of kebiishi saemon no shoujou.'
'Be wary of Go-Shirakawa,' Benkei warned, sliding the cutting edge of his knife across stone. The blade cried out.
'You should watch the manner in which you address his reverend majesty,' Yoshitsune snapped back, pride wounded.
Benkei stopped and looked up. 'I beg your forgiveness,' he said.
Yoshitsune shifted in place. 'You beg, do you?' His face was flushed: he had always responded too readily to praise.
Benkei did not look away. 'Yes, my lord, I do.'
'Put your sword away and come here.' Yoshitsune paused. 'Thinking of it, you're not supposed to have it unsheathed in my presence, are you?'
'A pity I rarely remember what should or should not be sheathed or unsheathed in what circumstance and in what order, my lord. Especially in your presence.'
And so Benkei followed Yoshitsune as the man allowed Go-Shirakawa to play him against his brother.
Benkei followed Yoshitsune to Yashima, and then he followed Yoshitsune to Dan-no-Ura, where Sōjōbō near burst out of the seams of his body to feast on the guts of the dying. Blood sang in the veins of Benkei's body as Yoshitsune played army against army, raising up a glorious cacophony of clashing steel, screaming horses, wailing men.
Each of Benkei's actions was accompanied by precisely chosen non-actions. It was the balance of things.
Benkei said nothing as Yoshitsune fumbled in his handling of Yoritomo's snake of a retainer, Kajiwara Kagetoki, and in doing so let his lord's pride take precedence over his lord's future safety. He could have counselled Yoshitsune not to rile Kajiwara up, that Kajiwara would whisper poison into Yoritomo's ear and stoke the flames of an already hot jealousy. But he did not.
Benkei said nothing as Yoshitsune reeled in disbelief that his brother had commanded bakufu retainers not to obey him, he the representative of the shogunate in the capital. He could have told Yoshitsune not to be naive, that the tides were turning and could not be stopped, and that no pledge of loyalty to Yoritomo would ever change his brother's mind. But he did not.
Benkei said nothing as Yoshitsune, desperate for approval and love, took off eastwards to speak to a brother whose only true allegiance would ever be to power. He could have told Yoshitsune not to waste his time pleading with Yoritomo, or spurred Yoshitsune on to something better than grovelling by pointing out how pathetic it was to live by his brother's say-so. But he did not.
Benkei could have told Yoshitsune, who could forge any military strategy into reality and yet fail to pull off the simplest of political ploys, not to agree to help his cousin Yukiie against Yoritomo when Yoshitsune could bear the indignity of his treatment no longer.
But he did not.
And when Yoritomo's men came to burn Horikawa mansion and Yoshitsune himself down to the ground, Benkei could have told him to stand and fight in the capital, a place where Yoshitsune had friends and at least a few allies. But he did not.
Instead, he followed Yoshitsune into exile, and would follow him all the way to the end.
War was over. It was time to return home.
Fujiwara Hidehira hid them in Ōshu, for a while. Benkei, whose eyes grew redder with each passing night, took to standing outside the old man's door in the small hours until, one day, Hidehira heard the cry of a tengu in the darkness and died of fright. And because the Fujiwaras had not had any fight in them for decades, Hidehira's sons – spineless and fighting each other over scraps – gave up Yoshitsune to Yoritomo without delay.
It was so typical of humans, Sōjōbō thought, to see power only to cower before it. A long time ago, a boy he had known had not cowered. That boy now stood on the walls of Koromagawa castle. It was night, and the moon was full. He was watching the roads.
'They are coming for me, Benkei,' Yoshitsune said, eyes distant and unfocused. He was a man accepting his doom.
'They are,' Sōjōbō agreed, laying on hand on Yoshitsune's forehead and smoothing his hair, already neat, into place. The shadow of wings darkened the stone corridor behind them. 'Let them come. It is time.'
'Time for what?' Yoshitsune asked, distracted. But when he turned to face Benkei, he saw the shape of Mt. Shide, that steep mountain in Hell, in the deep wells of Sōjōbō's eyes. He heard the clamouring of lost souls trapped deep underground. He saw, and recognised what he was seeing. Yoshitsune's eyes widened. 'Oh. It is you, my lord. Has it always been you?'
Sōjōbō, who made Benkei's eyes bulge and his tongue loll out of his mouth and who, tonight, could not be bothered to hold his human vessel together all that tightly, nodded. Benkei's fingers were now too long, and his nails were talons. His mouth curved into a half-beak, even though his tongue still hung out beneath it. His eyes had no whites, only black lit up by occasional licks of fire.
'Yes,' he said, in two voices of two realms. 'It has always been me. I have been watching. I have been waiting.'
Yoshitsune fell to his knees and was the one this time to kiss the bumpy ridges of Benkei's erupted claw-hook feet. 'My lord,' he said again, shivering. 'Will I die tomorrow?'
'You will come home tomorrow,' Sōjōbō corrected. 'Benkei will stand on the bridge below us and die a standing death while you take your own life. They will cut off your head and put it in sake and take it to Kamakura. Your body will rot and be eaten by worms. And the rest of you, my pretty one – your mind and your soul, which have both been forged under my anvil, those will come home to me. Are you ready?'
One taloned hand came under Yoshitsune's throat. Sōjōbō pulled him up until he was halfway upright. Small trickles of blood from the pinprick wounds he had made on Yoshitsune's skin slid down the pale length of the man's neck. Sōjōbō's long tongue licked the trails clean, pausing at the end to feel the hammering of Yoshitsune's pulse.
He lifted Yoshitsune further up to gaze at his face in the moonlight. Yoshitsune's hands came to grasp desperately at Sōjōbō's grip on his throat; the strain made sweat bead on his forehead. This feet scrabbled for purchase on the ground.
'You are still so beautiful,' Sōjōbō marvelled, pulling back to better watch Yoshitsune struggle. 'That is part of why you were not taken seriously in this life, but so too will it be part of why they shall honour you for the rest of eternity in song and dance and art. You are beautiful.'
Yoshitsune managed a smile, full of terror, but at least part of it was true and intended not for Benkei, but for Sōjōbō himself.
Sōjōbō released him. Yoshitsune collapsed down against the wall. While he picked himself up, Sōjōbō pulled Hatsune out from the air and drew Yoshitsune's flute down from the stars. He handed his protege the instrument.
Sōjōbō stroked his clawed hand along the side of the double-headed drum. His talons clicked against the wood in places. 'This drum, Hatsune, represents on one side Yoritomo and on the other side Yoshitsune,' he said, hitting first one head and then the other. 'Always opposed, yet irrevocably connected.'
The low notes of the drum were the earth-shaking footsteps of the march of men to war; the high notes were the twang of bowstrings.
Sōjōbō played then music that had not yet been written, but that would one day be written about Hōgan Kurō Yoshitsune: the tragic hero of his times, the warrior who could win all battles but not survive peacetime. The rhythm made the heavens shake.
Next to him, Yoshitsune listened closely, then put his mouth to his flute and made it sing until the trembling stars wept.