Lord of the Darkwood

9780374715038 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2016
read an excerpt

A self-assured warrior stumbles into a game of Go that turns fatal. An ambitious lord leaves his nephew for dead and seizes his lands. A stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother. A powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne. A woman of the Old People seeks five fathers for her five children, who will go on to found the Spider Tribe and direct the fate of the country.

As destiny weaves its tapestry in Lian Hearn's Tale of Shikanoko series, an emotionally rich and compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields in Lord of the Darkwood.

"Brutally thrilling historical fantasy"- Herald Sun

The Tale of Shikanoko
Book One: Emperor of the Eight Islands
Book Two: Autumn Princess, Dragon Child
Book Three: Lord of the Darkwood
Book Four: The Tengu's Game of Go

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An excerpt from Lord of the Darkwood

1: Hina (Yayoi)

The girl could see nothing. Her lungs were bursting. At any moment, she would open her mouth and breathe in the fatal waters of the lake. Snatches of her brief life came to her: her mother’s face, her father’s last words, her brother’s cry for help before he disappeared. She had been one of the few survivors after the massacre in Miyako. Now her life was over, and she and Takemaru, the baby she clutched desperately, would join the dead. Tears formed in her eyes, only to be lost in the ebb and f low of Lake Kasumi. 

Then suddenly there were dark shapes next to her, strong arms seized her. She was pulled upward toward the light, miraculously still holding the baby. She retched and coughed, gasping for air, taking great gulps of it into her lungs. Hands reached down from the side of the boat and took Take from her. He was limp and pale, but, as she herself was pulled on board, she heard him scream in ragged, outraged gasps. He was alive.

The boat bucked like a living animal in the strong westerly wind. She saw the ocher- colored sail lowered quickly, dropped on the deck, while the helmsman struggled with the oar at the stern. The men who had plunged into the water to save her were lifted up; they tore their wet clothes off and went naked, laughing. Monkeys screamed and chattered at them, dancing at the end of their cords. The sun in the east was dazzling. A crowd surrounded her. The men who were not naked were all dressed in red. They looked like beings from another world and she was afraid that she had drowned. But women stripped the heavy robes from her with hands that felt real, exclaiming at their fine quality in human voices. She and the baby were wrapped in furs, wolf and bear skins, and a bowl of some warm, strange- smelling liquid was pushed into her hands. 

Men hoisted the sail again, the hemp flapping, fighting them, ropes snapping, snaking through the air. The monkeys screamed more loudly. In the confusion, one of the boys approached her, holding the lute. Beneath the howl of the wind, the slap of the waves, it was still playing, but more softly, its mother-of-pearl and gold-inlaid rosewood gleaming in the sun. 

“Who are you?” he said quietly. “What are you doing with Genzo?” 

Fragments of memories came to her. It is Genzo, the Emperor’s lute , Take’s mother, Akihime, the Autumn Princess, had said, and she had promised to tell her where the child Emperor was, but she had not. Could this be him standing before her? It must be, the lute revealed him. But she must hide the fact she knew who he was. 

She shook her head at him, as though she did not understand, and held out her hands. His eyes narrowed as he thrust the lute at her. She saw his unease, longed to speak to reassure him, but did not dare say anything. How would she address him, for a start? Words of honor and deference rose on her tongue, but then the sailors shouted roughly at him to come and help them. Beside him the other boy was holding a text, made up of pages stitched together. 

“Yoshi caught the lute and I caught this,” he said, holding it out to her. “It’s heavy! How did a girl like you manage to throw it so far?” 

She grabbed it from him. She could not explain it, maybe it had sprouted wings and flown. She already knew the Kudzu Vine Treasure Store was enchanted. She tucked it under one arm while she turned her attention to the lute. It gave a sigh, as if it would start playing; she gripped it with her other hand. 

More shouts echoed around her. The boys darted from her side and the lute quieted. It retained all its beauty, but it surrendered to her touch and allowed her to play it. It no longer played itself, in that wild irrepressible outburst of joy. 

“She is a musician,” one of the men who had rescued her exclaimed. “We must take her to Lady Fuji.” 

The other looked back toward Nishimi, now barely visible over the choppy surface of the lake. “She must be from a noble family. Someone will miss her, someone will come looking for her.”

“That was Lord Hidetake’s home,” the oarsman called. “He is dead.” 

“Could this be his daughter? The one they call the Autumn Princess?” 

“The Autumn Princess would be a grown woman by now,” said one of the women, who had already put Take to her breast and was nursing him. “This one is still a girl. How old are you, lady?” 

“I turned twelve this year,” the girl replied. 

“And what do they call you?” 

She did not want to say her name. There came into her mind a fragment of memory, a poem. “Yayoi,” she said. It meant Spring. 

“Is this little man your brother?” the woman asked, stroking Take’s black hair tenderly. 

She knew she must not tell them that the baby was the Autumn Princess’s son. “No, my mother died, a long time ago. He is the child of one of my maids.” She went on, improvising, “She died giving birth to him. I like to play with him. I was holding him when I had to run away.” 

“What were you running from?” They were sympathetic toward her, but their curiosity was becoming tinged with anxiety. 

The girl who had named herself Yayoi began to shiver, despite the furs and the warm drink. 

“A bad man came,” she said, and then regretted sounding so childish. “I was afraid he was going to kill me.” 

“We should take her back,” one of the men suggested.

“Kinmaru,” the other man reproved him. “Someone was going to kill her!” 

“And that someone, Monmaru, could very well come looking for her and then who will get killed? Us, that’s who!” 

“ Can’t turn back against this wind,” the helmsman called. “It’s impossible.”

It was late in the afternoon by the time they came to the shore near the Rainbow Bridge. The market was almost over. Lanterns were being lit in the streets of Aomizu, on the island of Majima, and along the bridge. As soon as the boat grounded, the acrobats leaped ashore with the monkeys. 

“It’s not too late to do a trick or two,” Kinmaru cried. Monmaru began to beat a small drum and immediately the boys threw themselves into a per for mance, a circle of somersaults with the monkeys, a high tower with three of the monkeys on top, a wild dance where the animals jumped from man to boy to man. A crowd soon gathered around them. Yayoi realized the audience knew the monkeys by name, calling out to them, Shiro, Tomo, Ke muri , and had their favorites, whom they applauded wildly. She was dazed by the noise, the colorful clothes, the shouts in a dialect she could barely understand. She gripped the lute and the text close to her chest, as though they could shield her from this strange, new world.

“Come,” said the woman who had nursed Take—he was now asleep in her arms. “You will stay with us tonight and tomorrow we will ask Lady Fuji what she thinks we should do with you.” 

Yayoi slept restlessly on a thin mat in a room with three women and a clutch of children—one other young infant and three toddlers. The toddlers slept deeply like kittens. Take woke once screaming, and the other baby was colicky and fretful. Every time Yayoi felt herself dropping into sleep, the baby wailed and she woke in alarm, half-dreaming something had happened to Take, he had slipped from her arms underwater, he’d been stolen by monkeys. She heard the men and boys return later, their exaggerated efforts to keep quiet, their muff led laughter, the monkeys chattering as they were returned to their cages. For a few hours the house fell silent, but she thought she heard a bird call, while it was still dark, before even the roosters had woken, a long, f luting call like an echo from the past. 

The women rose at dawn to prepare the morning meal. Yayoi, who had never made a meal in her life, held Take for a while. He was nearly two months old. He looked closely at her face and smiled. 

He will never know his mother, she thought, and felt tears pool in her eyes. What would this day bring for them both? She felt sick and faint with fear. 

“Don’t cry, lady.” 

“Look how pale she is, white as a spirit.” 

“You need to be beautiful for Lady Fuji.” 

The women’s voices echoed around her. 

“Will Lady Fuji let me keep Takemaru?” she said. 

They exchanged looks that she was not meant to see.

“The baby can stay with us.” 

“Yes, I have plenty of milk for two.” 

“You cannot look after him, you are still a child yourself.” 

“Then let me stay with you too!” Yayoi could not hold the tears in. 

“This is no place for a young lady like you,” Take’s foster mother said. 

It was cool in the early morning, but by the time Lady Fuji arrived the sun was high in the sky and the air was warm. She came in with a rustle of silk, cherry blossom petals in her hair, the sweet perfume of spring all around her. 

The women immediately started to apologize on Yayoi’s behalf. 

“Her clothes are not yet dry.” 

“She’s been crying, her eyes are red.” 

“She nearly drowned yesterday; she can’t be expected to look her best.” 

Fuji studied Yayoi carefully, taking her head between her hands and tilting it from side to side. “I can see how she looks. What a beautiful child. Who are you, my dear, and where do you come from?” 

Some instinct warned Yayoi that her former life was over and she should never speak of it. She shook her head. 

“You can’t tell me? Well, that may be for the best. You have a Kakizuki look to you. Are you a survivor of the massacre in the capital?” 

Yayoi did not answer, but Fuji smiled as if she had acquiesced.

“Someone hid you at Nishimi, but you were discovered and that is why you ran away?” 

This time Yayoi nodded. 

“Can you imagine any man wanting to kill something so precious?” Fuji said. “Yet hundreds of women and children were put to death in Miyako last year when the Kakizuki warriors fled, leaving their families behind. I am of a mind to protect this one.” 

She looked around and saw the lute and the text. “You brought these with you? As well as the baby?” She picked up the lute and studied it with an expressionless face. It had lost its glowing rosewood and its gleaming inlay, yet Yayoi thought the older woman re cog nized it. 

“So what am I to do with you?” Fuji said finally. “Is anyone going to come in pursuit of you?” 

“I don’t know,” Yayoi replied. “Maybe.” She held herself rigid, trying not to tremble. 

“Someone must have seen you fall in the lake, but did they see you rescued? If anyone is looking for you, they will start their search with our boats, so I think I  will take you somewhere you can be safely hidden. We will hold a funeral service for the children who sadly drowned.” 

Hina drowned and Yayoi was rescued

“Will Take come with me?” 

“How can a girl like you take care of a baby? And that would only draw unwanted attention to you. Take can stay here, the women will look after him. One more baby makes little difference to this troop of children.”

She called to the women to bring some clothes, not Yayoi’s own robes, which she told the women to cut up for costumes, but old castoffs that smelled of mildew and something sour like vinegar. When she was dressed, they covered her head with a cloth, which concealed her hair and most of her face. 

“I must take my things,” she said anxiously. “The lute and the text.” Clasping them to her chest, she followed Fuji into the rear courtyard of the house, where the boys from the boat were feeding the monkeys and playing with them. A young girl was with them, idly beating a small drum, laughing at the monkeys and teasing the boys when they yawned and rubbed their eyes. Yayoi wanted to stay with them, to be one of them. 

She felt the lute stir and quiver and the notes began to trickle from it. She gripped it, willing it to be silent. The girl came to Yoshi’s side and took his hand protectively. Yayoi wondered if they had grown up together, if the girl was a princess like Aki. 

Fuji shook her head. “It will be safer hidden away too,” she said. “Kai, dear, I’ve told you before not to hang around here with the monkeys. Go back to your own place. I’m sure you have plenty of chores there.” 

“I wish I could stay here,” Kai replied. 

“What nonsense! Girls are never acrobats. Be thankful the musicians took you in.” 

Fuji helped Yayoi into the palanquin that rested on the ground outside the rear gate, the porters, two strong young men, beside it. They both bowed respectfully to Fuji, who gave them directions in a quick, low voice before she climbed in next to Yayoi and let down the bamboo blinds. 

She heard the women call, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Take care of yourself.” 

“Goodbye, Takemaru,” Yayoi whispered.

The lute quieted as the men jogged and the palanquin swayed. The stuffy heat and the motion made Yayoi sleepy and she nodded off several times, dreaming in brief, lucid snatches, then jolting suddenly awake. She could see nothing outside, only had the sensation of moving from light into shade, splashing through water, then going up a steep hill, the palanquin wobbling alarmingly as the men negotiated the steps. Finally, the palanquin was set down. Fuji raised the blind and stepped out. 

Yayoi followed her, glad to breathe the cool mountain air. Below her, framed by twisted pine trees, lay Lake Kasumi. She could see smoke rising from the villages around its edge and the tiny sails of boats, gleaming yellow in the sun. Behind her a bell tolled. It must be midday.

 “This is a temple for women,” Fuji said. “I have sent a few girls here to be looked after, until they are old enough.” 

Old enough for what? Yayoi wondered, her mind shying away from the answer. She concentrated on what was around her: the vermilion wooden gate, the flowering mountain cherries, the steps that led upward beneath pines that curved over them like a dark tunnel.

Fuji began to climb them swiftly. Yayoi had to trot to keep up with her. The stones were set too high for a child and, by the time they reached the top, her legs ached. Someone must have been told of their arrival, for at the top of the steps a nun was waiting to greet them. Behind her was a garden, with a spring that filled a cistern then overflowed and ran trickling away from them into a large fishpond. 

“Our abbess asks that you will take some refreshment with her.” She looked at Yayoi with cool, unfriendly eyes. “You have another foundling for us to look after?” 

“She is called Yayoi,” Fuji said. “I would prefer as few people as possible to know she is here. It will not be for long.” 

“No,” the nun agreed, her eyes appraising Yayoi’s height and age. “I suppose she can join the other girls in prayer and study.” She turned and began to walk toward a low building at the side of the temple. Its roof was curved at each end in an upward swoop, like wings, as if it would take flight at any moment. 

The nun paused and said to Fuji, “Asagao will want to see you. She can be this girl’s friend. They are about the same age.” She clapped her hands. 

A girl came from the building and dropped to her knees before Fuji, who stepped forward to take her hands and lift her to her feet. She looked carefully at her, much as the nun had studied Yayoi. The girl blushed. Yayoi thought her very pretty. 

“Lady Fuji,” Asagao said. “I am so happy. I missed you so much.”

“Sweet child, I have brought someone to be your friend. Please take care of her for me.” 

“Go with her to the girls’ room and show her where everything is,” the nun said. “Give me your things. Well, well, what have you brought with you? An old lute and an even older text? The lute will be useful, but you won’t need the text here. Don’t worry, we will keep it safe for you. When you leave, you may take it with you.” 

“Reverend Nun, may we walk a little way with you and Lady Fuji?” Asagao pleaded. 

She had an enchanting manner and the nun was charmed. “Very well, since it is so long since you have seen your benefactress. Just as far as the fishpond.” 

Red and white carp swam peacefully in the large stone basin, beneath lotus leaves from which the flower stems were just beginning to emerge. 

“See how the red and the white can live together?” Asagao said. “Why is our world so torn by war?” 

Fuji smiled. “You are very poetic, my dear. I can see you have been learning well. But it is best not to speak of the red and the white. As far as the Miboshi are concerned, there are now only the white.” 

“Yet in this pond the white are outnumbered by the red,” Asagao said, so quietly only Yayoi heard. She wondered what her story was and how she had ended up under Fuji’s protection. The two older women walked on and the girls were left alone.

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