“Faster,” Tadayoshi said, observing Ei with a blank expression. ‘Faster’ had been his only instruction for a while now.
Ei’s arms ached, but she still gritted her teeth and forced herself over the limit. The arch of the small sword became a bit faster for a while. “I can’t anymore!” she screamed and dug the weapon into the ground, using it as support. She tried to breathe, but even that pained her.
“Well… for your second time, it’s less awful.” It was the only thing Tadayoshi said before throwing her scabbard and walk away without giving her any time to rest. “Let’s go already.”
Ei barely managed to get sheath. She glared at his back, but she knew it was useless, so she focused her anger and what was left of her strength on the sword. The blade barely moved, but it was enough for her to go after Tadayoshi, leaving a thin trail on the ground behind her.
Each breath was a sharp stab, but still Ei forced herself to walk. Even with Tadayoshi walking at his normal pace, she couldn’t shorten the distance between them. With her entire attention on moving her legs, she didn’t notice that he had halted, nor that he offered some fruits. When she finally noticed, she devoured it all in few bites and choked. He didn’t wait.
Ei finally managed to catch up with him after she recovered. Only then, under Tadayoshi’s silent and hard stare, she finally realized. I’m a complete idiot, she thought, looking away in shame. She couldn’t bear to meet his eyes.
It didn’t matter if she was exhausted and her arms heavy. It didn’t matter if she was in a hurry to catch him. He didn’t have to say; Ei knew how foolishness and dangerous it was to run with a naked blade.
Cursing herself and vowing she would never do something this stupid again, Ei sheathed the wakizashi. She was about to place the scabbard on her waist when Tadayoshi’s voice echoing in her mind. Since it was one of his few moments where he was serious about her training, the words carved into her. She walked next to him, carrying the weapon with both hands.
“Be careful,” he said, glancing down at her.
Ei sighed in relief, but didn’t smile. She had planned to carry the wakizashi in her hands until they stopped as punishment, even with her arms already numb. But instead of happy, his words made her nervous.
The sword on her waist felt somehow strange. She glanced up at Tadayoshi, half expecting some stupid joke or at least a comment. But he wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. He looked forward, his face strained and his eyes narrowed. In the short time she knew him, she had seen that expression only once; during the fight against the samurai.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her hand going for the handle of the sword.
Tadayoshi stopped and stretched his arm, making her stop as well. Ei looked for any sign of danger and her eyes went to the end of the road. Even from this distance, she could tell there were fewer trees until they stopped. The end of the forest, she thought, pressing her lips and holding her breath without realizing.
“Can you feel anything?” Tadayoshi asked, looking at her. For a heartbeat, Ei thought he was talking about her feelings. But she understood what he meant and shook her head. “Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing.”
Ei did as told. Her senses heightened and the sounds of the forest flooded her ears. She heard the rustle of leaves, the waters from a nearby creek, the birds on branches chirping, other animals running, crawling… Nothing strange to her, who played in the woods her entire life.
Without her notice, a small smile crept on her lips. Even if she was far from home, the familiar sounds comforted her. She cleared her mind, exhaled and inhaled deeper this time. Now she smelled wet earth, a dead animal, fruits, flowers… nothing that would make Tadayoshi cautious.
She took another breath, and the same smells came to her. Only this time, she thought she noticed something different. It was almost nothing, but was still there. “The air… there’s something… heavier…?”
The moment she spoke, Ei blushed. Even to her, it sounded stupid. But Tadayoshi wasn’t laughing, nor holding one. He wasn’t even looking at her anymore. For some reason, that saddened her a bit.
“Good.” He patted her on the head a little too roughly and then handed her their baggage. “You’re starting to sense. Now hide.”
Ei pressed her lips to hide her smile and did as told. But she wasn’t just going to hide. She couldn’t. It can only enemies, she knew. It was the only other thing could make Tadayoshi serious. And she had to see, had to learn, no matter whom the enemy was. The same way Ei had carved the fight against the samurai into her heart, she would carve this too. Then one day I’ll fight by his side, she thought, not suppressing her smile now.
After confirming Ei was out of sight, Tadayoshi headed to the edge of the forest.
She tried to keep up between the trees without taking her eyes from him. But even for her, it wasn’t easy. In these parts, the trees didn’t grow together, but she had to pay attention to avoid the roots or the lower branches.
When Ei lost sight of him, she panicked and ran. She tripped, cut herself on the cheek and bruised her knees. Ignoring the pain, she cleaned the blood and raced to the edge of the forest. Still hidden among the trees, Ei looked for Tadayoshi.
He was almost at the last trees, but he stopped and looked at her. He was confirming I’m safe, she realized as he left the forest. Is the enemy that strong? Anxious, she moved closer to the exit. Now she could see what was happening beyond the trees.
It wasn’t just one enemy. Five people were outside the forest. Are they waiting for us? No, not us… I’m nobody, Ei thought. They can only be waiting for the man who killed Yasuhiro-sama. If that’s true… She bit her lips and pressed her fingers against the tree.
If the men were really expecting him, it meant Tadayoshi was right. Someone from the castle might have spread the news about him, but only someone from her village could have told their direction. She didn’t tell him the whispers about keeping Tadayoshi in the village until the soldiers came back; she herself wanted to forget.
Hate is stronger than gratitude, Tadayoshi had said to her. As if that was how he felt… Maybe it’s because he feels that way about his master… Ei shook her head, trying to keep those feelings away. I believe him! I believe him! He didn’t kill Yasuhiro-sama because he wanted!
Turning her focus on the five men, this time Ei observed every detail about them. Just like he taught. A shiver coursed through her body. With scars covering their faces and arms, Ei could only think of them as scary. The bandits…
The five man reminded her the bandits that almost destroyed her village, that almost killed her, that killed her mother. No! Ei screamed in her mind, hugging herself to stop the trembling. She knew if she thought about her mother now, she would cry. I can’t cry… I… I won’t cry…
Ei cleaned her eyes, gritted her teeth and forced herself to look at them once again. Two sat on the ground, sharpening their weapons; two were standing on guard. Each one had one sword on their waist. The only one different was the man sitting on a flat rock under a lonely tree shading him from the sun. He carried two swords, a big and a small one. Daishō… Tadayoshi had spoken about it. Normally those who carried the set of katana and wakizashi were a samurai.
That man looked nothing like Jirou though. While Jirou looked like a hero from a story, almost how she envisioned Yasuhiro-sama, that samurai reminded her the Demon Samurai, a character from a children’s story Dai-jii loved to tell to scare the kids.
His face was hard and his hair filthy, as if not washed for weeks. How long they’ve been waiting here? Maybe ever since we left my village… The rest of fruits and animal’s bones scattered around the tree confirmed that.
Now she realized they didn’t look like those bandits at all. Even from afar, a beginner like Ei could feel. They did have a similar fierce, hardened by battles aura. But there was a difference. These men weren’t bandits; they were real warriors.
The moment Tadayoshi was in sight, the men on guard stopped talking and stared the newcomer. Those sharpening their swords jumped to their feet and the samurai stood up with his weapon in hand. Without any gesture, the others formed a semicircle around Tadayoshi, blocking the escapes routes except for the way back to the forest.
Are they leaving room for a fight one-on-one? Then Tadayoshi was right. The people after him were close, she thought grimly.
Tadayoshi didn’t react. He kept walking towards the samurai at the same pace, his face indicating nothing. What are you doing, you idiot? Why aren’t drawing your sword? Ei wanted to shout at him when she saw him yawning and rubbing his neck with the right hand. Then she noticed his left hand sliding to the handle of his sword discreetly. A moment later she realized; with two steps, any of them would be within Tadayoshi’s reach.
“Can I help you?” he asked, looking one by one with an empty expression.
“The honor for your head will be enough.” The moment the samurai finished speaking, they all attacked.
Tadayoshi didn’t waste time, moving at the same instant. He went towards the man on the samurai’s left. The warrior swung his sword, but Tadayoshi avoided with ease and slammed his shoulder hard on the enemy’s chest.
The warrior lost his breath and Tadayoshi grabbed his hands. With an amazing speed, he attacked the leader with his man’s own sword.
Too fast for him, the samurai couldn’t avoid nor deflect the attack and the blade pierced his stomach. The surprise on his face lasted only a heartbeat. It turned into shock and then into pain. He dropped his sword and fell with his hands around the wound, squirming and grunting until he fell silent.
Ei knew nothing about the world of the sword. But she was sure of one thing; Tadayoshi was strong. Very strong. Even though she knew that, she still watched with her eyes shining. He killed that samurai in instants… She didn’t notice, but she couldn’t stop smiling. One day I’ll be strong like that and fight by his side.
The other three men hesitated as the earth drank the samurai’s blood. Their faces screamed their thoughts; even if they were strong, their leader had died too easily. But they didn’t give up and charged the next moment.
In the brief instant they took their eyes off their target, they never noticed what had happened. Tadayoshi still held the man’s sword, but with his free hand, he had pulled the small knife and carved into the enemy’s heart. The warrior widened his eyes, not believing, as his clothes drenched in blood.
Circling the dying man, Tadayoshi threw him at the two furthest away. One managed to avoid his companion, but the other wasn’t so fast. The dead body hit him in full and he collapsed under it.
Without looking to see the result, Tadayoshi drew his own sword and slashed the closest one across the throat. Even before the warrior fell, the swordsman had already turned to face the remaining enemies.
The only one still standing didn’t hesitate; he didn’t even glance at his companions on the ground as he swung his sword. But, even to Ei’s, his attack was slow. Tadayoshi’s katana leapt up, met the enemy’s and redirected the blow towards the ground. Taking advantage of the momentum, Tadayoshi drove the knife into the warrior’s throat.
The last enemy finally got out underneath the dead body and stood up with his sword ready. But when he saw only Tadayoshi standing and all his companions dead, he threw his weapon aside and ran towards the forest.
Ei had obeyed Tadayoshi and stayed hidden. But, mesmerized by the fight and her need to see everything, she had gotten closer without realizing. And now the only survivor was running towards her.
Her mind froze. Ei knew they didn’t even look alike, but all she could see was the bandit who killed her mother running towards her. No… no… She took a step back, and then another. And another. Until something blocked her path. Her breathing became shallow and fast. Her entire body trembled. Afraid to look, she used her hand and almost cried in relief when she realized it was only a tree.
She pulled her sweaty hand back and bumped on her sword. Even in that state, she had a vague idea what to do. I need to draw… I need to defend myself… I need… to kill… Her fingers closed around the handle, but she didn’t draw the weapon. She couldn’t. She trembled so much it was impossible.
The warrior was almost at the forest but hadn’t noticed her presence. He was too busy looking over his shoulder to see if his Tadayoshi followed him.
Tadayoshi was still in the same place, swinging his sword to clean the blood. After he sheathed his katana, he began collecting the weapon of the dead, not noticing the man running towards Ei.
The warrior stumbled on a root and fell right before the girl’s feet.
Out of reflex, out of fear, Ei drew her sword.
She tried to swing the blade down, but her hands didn’t obey her. The metal clanked so much it killed all the others sounds. The man raised his head and stared her, his eyes filling with terror.
Ei could see herself reflected in those eyes. She, holding a sword, about take a life, to kill someone. Everything went cold. Her breathing became faster and her heart thumped louder. In the blink of an eye, she was deaf to everything except her own gasps and her heart.
The moment stretched, and Ei did not move. All she could do was stare the man. Everything seemed still for an eternity. Only when the faint sound of Tadayoshi’s hurried steps reached Ei, time moved again.
The man looked over his shoulder, stood up and ran, ignoring the petrified Ei.
Tadayoshi panted and moved his mouth, but nothing came out. Ei knew he was saying something, but to her, he had no voice. No… I’m the one who can’t hear, she thought vaguely. Only when he grabbed her hand and squeezed hard, she looked up at him and finally heard his voice. “Are you okay?”
Those black and deep eyes soothed her and she lowered her sword, her breathing slowly returning to normal. She realized her hands were numb and cold and she did nothing when he took the weapon from her.
Tadayoshi removed the scabbard from her waist, sheathed the sword and held in her front without a word. Ei accepted it, but lowered her head, too ashamed to look him in the eye. She waited for him to say something, anything. Even a joke would make her feel better.
But all he did was grab the baggage she didn’t remember dropping and leave the forest. Wiping the tears threatening to fall, she followed him without placing the scabbard on her waist.
I thought I’d got stronger. That everything would be different with a sword but… I haven’t changed anything… I’m still the same weak kid who can’t do anything, Ei thought, squeezing the scabbard.
Tadayoshi’s back seemed even bigger than last night. You should stop wasting your time with me. I’m weak, I can’t do anything… I’m just a little village girl who can only tremble when she’s afraid…
She missed her home, she missed Dai-jii, and Sumire, her cousin and all the others. And she missed her mother the most. Mom… This time Ei did nothing to stop the tears, letting them fall in silence.