So that what’s happened, Tadayoshi thought as he lied on the straw, staring the ceiling. That kid lost his mother, but hasn’t given himself to despair or wishes for revenge. Only a flame of determination remained… He smiled. Just seeing someone like that was worth come here.
The swordsman closed his eyes, but despite his tiredness, sleep did not come. It wasn’t the low cry coming from the chief’s room, but the image of the boy’s eyes in his mind. Scratching his head, he looked inside his clothes for one of his few possessions to distract himself.
Tadayoshi had five things at the moment. One was the bandit’s knife he acquired today. Two he stole in the last city he passed as he fled after they found out his identity. And the others were part of his old life.
Both once belonged to his master and to Tadayoshi, the sword and his master’s diary were just as important.
The little book was so old and worn and Tadayoshi had read so much he fear the pages might fall or the ink might fade. Even so, he read it whenever he couldn’t sleep, and every time he could hear his master's voice. And for those brief moments, the swordsman felt the old samurai was by his side once again, and that his death wasn’t true.
His master was known among nobles and peasants alike, and most considered him a legend. Those close to him said he could be considered a grown child. Whenever Tadayoshi remember how different the image was, the swordsman couldn’t help but laugh.
To him, his master was someone hasty, always ready for a fight… no, duel, as he called, and loved to annoy arrogant people, especially nobles who thought too highly of themselves. However, in the most unexpected occasions, the samurai was a calm person who analyzing everything before acting.
His handwriting reflected that. Where he wrote about his travels and adventures, it was almost illegible, as if his master had written still in the heat of battle. But where he wrote about his own masters, his family, the future or Tadayoshi, or as he used to call, the brat, the handwriting was calm and beautiful and somehow it felt gentle.
When the nights were peaceful, and Tadayoshi didn’t need to worry if he would wake up with his head or not, the swordsman cried while reading.
The reason Tadayoshi read and reread the small diary was simple; to find any clue that might lead to the motives behind his master’s last request. The old samurai didn’t write what had happened, nor where it happened. Nothing but vague information before the fight. Nevertheless, Tadayoshi believed he had missed some detail, some description, anything.
So once again he read and reread, but found nothing. Damn it… Tadayoshi thought, putting the diary away as the exhaustion came back. Taking deep breaths, he gave up and try sleep in the warm summer night.
Sumire-dono woke up to prepare the food next morning. Though it wasn’t necessary, she tried to be as quiet as she could so she wouldn’t disturb the stranger in her house. Or maybe she doesn’t wanna talk to me, Tadayoshi realized. Despite keeping his eyes closed, he had awaken at first sign of movement in the room.
He wasn’t sure how much time passed, but at some point Daisuke-dono came from his room as well. The swordsman remained as he was as the old man joined his wife in the kitchen. By the sounds, they ate their meal there.
Tadayoshi still didn’t move, concentrating on his hearing. For a moment, all he could hear was them eating, and he believed the meal would be silent like last night, but Sumire-dono broke the silence.
“Should we wake him?” she asked, keeping her voice down even in the other room.
“No,” the old man answered curtly. “He’ll be going soon. Let him sleep.”
“Are you really not asking his help?” Even through the wall, Tadayoshi felt the anguish in her voice. “I know he’ll if you say something.”
Tsk, am I that easy to read? Tadayoshi thought, breathing deep to silence the voice in his head that sounded a lot like his master. Better leave as soon as I can.
“I don’t even know who he is. For all I know he could be with the bandits.”
“If you believe that, he wouldn’t be here.” Sumire-dono waited, letting her words sink in.
Daisuke-dono sighed. “You’re right. Even so, I won’t ask him.”
“Why not?” Sumire-dono raised her voice. “With him here, we might not lose as many…”
“Not lose as many…” The leader chuckled with his voice so hollow it made the swordsman turned his head towards the kitchen. Daisuke-dono stayed in silence for a while. “You’re right. If I ask him, it might change our fate. Those who want to fight will accept even a stranger’s help and we could keep living here as always,” he said, his voice almost dreamy now. “But I’m a coward. I’d rather give this home, this village and anything else if it meant not losing anyone else.”
Sumire-dono said nothing else, but Tadayoshi heard a low cry. She knows the chief’s right. Even if you win, you’d still lose too much, the swordsman knew as well. The old man chose to live and that’s why he won’t ask for my help. Tadayoshi couldn’t help but admire. Daisuke-dono reminded him his master too much.
Tadayoshi heard the kitchen’s door opening, steps and then the main door opening and closing. The only thing that broke the silence was the low cry still coming from the kitchen. After a moment, the sound ceased and the swordsman felt Sumire-dono approaching him.
Did she find out I was listening? Tadayoshi remained still, waiting. He didn’t believe the woman had discovered, but, even though he would be leaving soon, he didn’t want the old man finding out he had eavesdropped their talk. Tadayoshi breathed slowly as to keep the motion of someone sleeping.
The woman never said anything. Instead, the swordsman heard a faint sound of wood on wood and then she too left the house. Only he was finally alone he stopped pretending and turned around. What he heard was Sumire-dono putting on the floor a couple hashi and bowl with millet and an egg on the top.
The sun shone as bright as yesterday and it seemed unlikely something terrible could happen in this village today. The villagers’ expressions said otherwise thought. Women and children worked on the fields planting the rice seedlings, but from time to time, most stopped what they were doing and raised their heads, looking around. Only after confirming there was nothing strange, they resumed their job.
Boys and men stood around the fields again, armed with wooden axes, shovels, pickaxes, small scythes, nata and any other tool they could use as weapon. In the center of the field, as if leading the villagers, stood Bandages and two others holding the swords. While the other two seemed statues expect for turning their heads as if expecting the bandits to appear out of nowhere, Bandages swung the katana with exaggerated movements.
Is he practicing...? The swordsman kept watching, but after only few moments, he sighed. From Bandages’ movements, and the way he held the sword, Tadayoshi could tell the villager had never held a weapon before, let alone used one to kill a person.
I know what you’re feeling. I know how terrible it is to lose everything you know in a blink of eye, Tadayoshi thought, holding his sword tighter. And I know how frustrating it is to feel helpless and not able to do anything at all. But a last minute train won’t make you a warrior, even if your life and the lives of your loved ones on the line. Can’t you understand what Daisuke-dono wants? He want you all to live! Tadayoshi wanted to say, wanted to scream. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. The words of an outsider wouldn’t make a difference, nor had any place there.
Tadayoshi closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He trying thinking of something that might persuade the villagers to listen to the old man. But a frustrated laughed escaped his lips almost right away. If their leader can’t, what could I do? Daisuke-dono’ face appeared in the swordsman’s mind, along with his words this morning. Tadayoshi pressed his lips, ignoring the growing wish to help this village. Then the image changed to the boy staring the swordsman with those eyes full of determination.
I need to leave now, Tadayoshi told himself, shaking his head.
Just like yesterday, he thought as he headed towards forest. The villagers who weren’t protecting the fields turned their heads when the swordsman was in sight. No… it’s not completely like yesterday. The villagers didn’t stop their choirs to glare at him, though they still watch his every move, some either bluntly staring him and others glancing when they thought he wasn’t paying attention.
Daisuke-dono was talking with an old woman, but when Tadayoshi was within sight, she stopped and glared him, her eyes watering. Ah, so it’s that… the swordsman realized. The villagers were indeed staring him, but more than him, it was his sword.
The chief looked the swordsman in the eyes and then turned back to the woman, saying something Tadayoshi couldn’t hear. From that look, he finally understood. Those against resisting the bandits probably are blaming me for that, he thought, turning towards the field. From here, he could still see Bandages training.
Tired of the stares, Tadayoshi walked as fast as he could without running towards the forest. The shortest path to one of the exit lead him behind a house near the edge of the village. With the shadow provided by the house, the empty space until the first trees was pleasant. Tadayoshi rested his back on the wall and enjoyed the breeze… until the picture of the houses burning invaded his mind.
It doesn’t look like anything bad happened here, he thought, looking round. But the image stayed in his mind. Then it changed to the chief holding his stomach, blood spewing from the wound, but his face never showed any fear. Sorry old man, but if that’s your fate, I can’t change it. I can’t change it, Tadayoshi said to himself over and over, until the image vanished. But it never did. Instead, it changed to the boy, Ei, staring some faceless laughing shadow, his eyes shining with the same intensity he showed the swordsman.
Forcing himself to move, Tadayoshi walked towards the trees, leaving the village behind him. With every step he took, he turned his head and pressed his lips, but still kept going. Shit! He screamed in his head.
Tadayoshi looked at his katana, at his master’s old sword, the samurai’s face filling the swordsman head. Shit! He shook his head and then looked around. He was at some sort of clearing and then he snorted. I can’t believe I’m thinking about training right now.
Training, something he neglected for a time. How could I train when people are after my head? Despite being true, Tadayoshi himself knew it was just an excuse. His master was diligent and trained almost every day. ‘Don’t let your mind go dull and your sword rust’, he liked to say, mostly to his younger son and to Tadayoshi. Reminding of them made the swordsman laugh for a heartbeat.
Yeah, you really were that kind of person, master. Not that you needed any more training, Tadayoshi thought, a smile appearing on his lips. I should’ve listen more to your words, master. I wished I could be more like you. Guess I’ll never be… As regret filled him, he realized something. Is that why I hate when people call me samurai? He wondered. He had never given much thought beyond the dislike. I really wish you were here, master…
Cleaning the tears, he placed his katana against a tree. My sword is fine, thank you, he thought, remembering his master’s worlds once again. Despite not drawing it for days— something he was thankful for—there was no reason to train his skills today. Thanks for that, master. For some reason, old memories jumped in the swordsman’ head and his body shivered.
What he needed to train was his body. Guess running and fleeing isn’t enough for a swordsman. And so he started one of the few trainings without a sword his master had taught that he could remember at the moment.
Even though the trees blocked almost everything, Tadayoshi could see the sun above him when he stopped. It’s already this late, he thought, sitting on the ground and resting his back against a tree. Despite planning only to clear his head, he ended up training for more than he wanted. What a waste of energy. He rested his head on the tree as well, closing his eyes and breathing slowly.
Tadayoshi turned in the direction of the village. From here, he could still see a house. I’m sorry, Daisuke-dono. Your destiny belongs to you. Hope you can make the rest see your side.
“You can come out now,” he said, opening his eyes. The moment he spoke, a branch shook and then Ei stepped out from his hiding place. This time the swordsman didn’t smile. He just watched as the boy stared him with the same unwavering eyes as Tadayoshi’s images. “I won’t say I’m sorry for not helping your village.”
The boy’s face never changed, keeping the same empty expression as he walked towards the swordsman. The boy held out his palm when he was close enough.
Tadayoshi stared the peaches, but his hand never moved. Is he trying to convince me? The swordsman stared into the boy’s eyes and understood right away. He already knows I won’t help, he thought, accepting the fruits and taking a bite from the biggest one. What he wants are answers.
“What it takes to be strong?” the child asked. Despite his low voice, it never faltered, and his eyes glowed a bit more stronger.
The urge to laugh last only a heartbeat, dying inside him so quick it never escape his lips. Tadayoshi had asked the same thing to his master when he was younger. He also remembered the samurai threw back the question, and Tadayoshi’s answer made the old man laugh.
But there was nothing funny about that question today. Because no matter how much determination he had, Ei was only a kid looking for something to grab. The swordsman knew his answer would influence the boy’s life. If he survives, that is. Tadayoshi knew that very well, so he closed his eyes and thought.
After a long time, he opened them. In the end, he had to be honest. The question had as many answers as people in the world. And each one must find his or her own answer, right, master?
“What it means to be strong?” Tadayoshi decided to imitate his master, despite how annoying made him. Putting his feelings aside, he stared the boy, watching his reaction. The question was more complex than it appeared. It was a test, one that annoyed Tadayoshi a lot. The answer reveals who the person is, the swordsman heard his master’s voice whispering in his mind.
“Strong is to be capable of doing something when there’s something wrong!” Ei answered, his voice rising for the first time. “Be strong isn’t cry because you can’t do anything while you see your mom die!” Despite his firm voice, Tadayoshi saw the boy’s eyes trembling and tears forming.
Tadayoshi sighed. How long has he thought about that? “Then I’m not strong,” the swordsman said. “I think no one in the world is by your definition.” It wasn’t what Ei expected, and his opened mouth and widened eyes revealed that. Tadayoshi took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. “My master died in front of me and I couldn’t do anything but cry.” He never realized his fist was trembling, closed so hard around the katana his knuckles were white.
Ei had no reaction for Tadayoshi’s words. Despite his expression once again back to the empty façade, his eyes betrayed him; the boy was about to break.
Guess I was too honest… Tadayoshi looked between Ei and his sword. “Maybe I can’t make you stronger, but I can try,” he said, raising his katana and offering the handle to the boy.
Ei widened his eyes. For a moment, everything was still in the clearing. Tadayoshi could almost hear the boy’s heart beating faster as sweat ran down his brow. He extended his arms slowly, as if they weighed more than they should. His hand was almost around the handle…
“Who don’t wanna die, leave!” a scream echoed form the village.